Panama Canal Cruise on the Holland America Line

Panama Canal Cruise on the Holland America Line

Envision yourself on one of the world’s premiere cruise lines, exploring some of the most exotic islands and picturesque seascapes on earth. In sharp contrast to the modern world of cars, buildings and smog, imagine grassy green vistas and cloud-free blue skies. See yourself canoeing through lush rainforests, snorkeling in isolated lagoons and spying flora and fauna in colors you never knew existed. On Holland America Line’s Panama Canal Sunfarer Cruise, these distant daydreams are unequivocal realities. Recently, ABILITY Magazine embarked on a 10-day journey with Holland America for a taste of Aruba, CuraÁao and Costa Rica—via the famous Panama Canal—and saw first-hand how the company is working to make travel to these exotic locations both exciting and accessible.

On the massive MS Zaandam—an accessible ship on which over 1,400 travelers relax in between ports—
Holland America’s signature dark blue hull and white superstructure can be seen for miles. As a guest you’ll find luxury on board and adventures awaiting, with dozens of off-ship excursions available at each tropical destination. An extravagant multi-course menu meets the dietary needs of even the pickiest passengers, with vegetarian dishes like tagliatelle with asparagus and fresh mozzarella, health-conscious options like seared perch fillet with roasted vegetables and steamed rice, and no-sin desserts like sugarless strawberry shortcake. After an exquisite meal, relax on the deck with a glass of wine, delight in a poolside nap, or join in activities and games available for all age groups. Almost immediately, the skies are bluer and the breeze more fresh and fragrant than anyone can remember back home. Meanwhile, adventure awaits the more restless traveler beyond the ship’s boundaries.

From its starting point in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the Zaandam transports you to Half Moon Cay, a pristine and uninhabited private island owned by Holland America. Guests disembark to an open-air plaza with live music, Caribbean barbecue and the first opportunity to shop for local trinkets. Once you reach land, Half Moon Cay is the most accessible of the cruise destinations. Balloon-tired wheelchairs are readily available for navigating the island’s scenic beaches.

If beach-lounging isn’t your thing, optional excursions begin here and can occupy the whole day. Explorers can absorb the wonders of the island by bus, flipper or hoof. Imagine riding horseback across the brilliant white sands and into the warm tropical waters, soaking up land, sea and sun. For the non-equestrians, a glass-bottomed boat ride illuminates the true meaning of deep blue sea. Or stroll off on your own for an old-fashioned nature walk.

At day’s end you set sail for Aruba. For the evening, renew yourself in the ship’s spa, release your energy in the gym or the casino, or stop by the theater for live entertainment. In the morning, disembark to discover Aruba’s distinctive countryside by bus, visiting the Casibari Rock Formations—huge granite boulders weighing up several tons and featuring peculiar shapes carved by the eternal trade winds. See the famed Natural Bridge, previously the Caribbean’s highest and most dramatic coral structure. Before its recent collapse, it formed a 100-foot arch reaching 23 feet above sea level, and it still provides a dramatic view of the pounding ocean waves below. For the brave of heart, commandeer an all-terrain vehicle to power through the hills, or speed at 45 knots aboard the Screamer jet boat.

The next day’s stop at CuraÁao offers another fresh adventure. The port city of Willemstad brings the true flavor of Holland, with pastel-painted buildings that seem transposed from a quaint Dutch community. Busy markets in this multicultural capital allow you to practice your diplomatic negotiations. For the explorers, a range of natural tours and activities is a short bus ride away. As you canoe in a placid lagoon, your guides give a lesson on symbiosis as they lift submerged plant roots to expose clinging red and blue sponges. A short walk brings you back to the Caribbean Sea, where a quick donning of snorkel gear reveals the bustling activity beneath the water’s surface. As fish swarm by, an occasional barracuda glides over to investigate.

After being cruelly torn away from this hidden gem, you’re on your way to the Panama Canal to experience one of the wonders of human technology. The dream to create a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans dates back to the 16th century, but the obstacles were severe—a complex mountain range, river flooding, a tropical jungle and outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever. During the canal’s construction at the turn of the 20th century, illnesses and accidents claimed a recorded 5,609 lives, but later estimates placed the true number close to 22,000. Many say the only way to fathom the history and engineering genius of the Panama Canal is to pass through it.

This architectural masterpiece would take a full day to traverse in its entirety. Along its 51 miles, its many locks have 1,000-foot-long walls and gates seven feet thick. Passengers on the Holland America cruise glide in through three locks, rising 85 feet, then stop in Gatun Lake, an earthen dam forming one of the largest artificial lakes in the world. From there they can disembark for shore and a full day of discovery in Panama before the ship doubles back toward the canal’s entrance.

Spectacular views of the waterways and rainforest can be seen from Gamboa Rainforest Resort’s observation tower, reached via an aerial tram that gives a bird’s-eye view as it glides over the 55,000-acre upper-forest canopy. You begin to wonder how the crispest photos could even begin to capture the lush greens of the Panamanian rainforest, and whether Crayola’s makers could fathom the reds and yellows of the tropical wildlife. The words blue and purple seem woefully inadequate as the natural wonders around you stain your memory with vivid hues. Unfortunately, while the observation tower itself is wheelchair accessible, ascended by a long, spiraling ramp, the dimensions of the tram necessary to reach it restrict wheelchair access.

Following the exciting Panama Canal visit—however you choose to experience it—Costa Rica hosts the final tropical adventure. The port city of Puerto Limon has something for everyone. See and sample the island’s main exports with a visit to a pineapple farm or a banana plantation, or take the Grano de Oro Coffee Tour. For a more hands-on excursion, embark on horseback through the vast rainforest. Sloths, snakes and frogs inhabit these trails, and guides catch some of the local creatures for the group to see up close. On one trip, a young guide, overwhelmed by the beauty and thrill of the wild, climbed off his horse, grabbed an innocuously hanging vine and jumped over the hilltop’s edge, swinging like Tarzan above the valley below before returning to his stunned tour group.

All in all, Holland America’s Panama Canal Sunfarer Cruise provides a vast range of adventure and excitement to meet the needs of all its passengers. Some people take cruises for the ship, some for the excursions, but everyone goes for the unforgettable experience. All travelers deserve a chance to enjoy the thrill and beauty of a tropical vacation in the distinctive Caribbean islands. Holland America’s excursions fit different paces and utilize every mode of transportation imaginable.

Access to the islands is sometimes a tender ride away—small boats, called tenders, transport passengers to land when the ship can’t dock. The difficulty of transfers from one boat to another depends on the water’s conditions, so the ship’s staff and crew assist passengers in transit between vessels. Once on land, travelers find wide variations in accessibility, and regulations are not as strong in some nations as they might anticipate. Buses in some locales are more accessible than in others, and unfortunately many natural trails cannot accommodate individuals with mobility issues. Excursion guides list the details and level of difficulty for each adventure.

However, accessibility aboard Holland America Line’s ships—including the Zaandam, one of the cruise line’s larger models—is visibly up to par. The award-winning fleet features many accessible cabins, complemented by barrier-free access to all the ships’ amenities. While the number of fully accessible cabins is limited, Holland America offers portable assist kits for people with visual and hearing disabilities; options include visual doorknockers and vibrating bed alerts, as well as pamphlets and menus available in braille. In addition, ships utilize FM transmission and infrared systems to aid passengers on galley tours and in the show lounges; guests are also free to use the aids on shore excursions. Passengers with mobility issues have little, if any, trouble moving around the ship, and the first stop in Half Moon Cay offers readily accessible beaches. Travel logistics do, however, become a more frequent concern in transit from the ship and on land. For this reason, Holland America encourages travelers with mobility issues to contact the line’s Shore Excursions Office as soon as possible after booking tickets, so agents can help make any preparations needed, give advice about accessible tours, and sometimes adjust excursion options to meet individual travel needs.

Medical care and equipment for emergencies are readily available on the ship and on some excursions. While no one can guarantee safety for vine-swinging daredevils, a local medic accompanies the group. One guest had his inaugural wheelchair experience as a result of an injury sustained onshore, and he expressed delight at the ease of transition.

According to Tiffany Bergman, supervisor of customer relations, the travel market’s increasing demand for accessibility drives the innovations in Holland America’s cruises. Says Bergman, “We have gone through a signature of excellence upgrade for all the ships in the fleet. If we want to be the best in the industry and provide the best service possible, we need to be able to do that for every single person who comes to us.”

by Eva Meszaros

ABILITY Magazine
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Panama Canal Cruise — Holland America Line

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