By Aaron Saunders
They said it was the canal that couldn’t be built — and for a while, it was. In 1881, the French tried for more than a decade before admitting defeat. The United States picked up the cause in 1904, and it took them another 10 years before the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal was complete.
Today, the canal dramatically cuts a 48-mile swath through Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans together — making it a modern world wonder. No surprise, then, that transiting the canal is high on many travelers’ bucket lists.
But which size ship is best to take in the iconic experience? Big cruise ships typically transit only a couple of times a year as they make their way between the Caribbean and Alaska. And thanks to the opening of newer, wider locks this past summer, larger cruise ships than ever are now able to make the journey. But while there’s nothing wrong with experiencing the canal from a massive ship, seeing it from the deck of a small cruise ship is infinitely more rewarding.
First, a smaller ship puts you closer to the action. You can literally see the faces on the drivers of the “mules” — electrically powered locomotives that run on broad-gauge tracks — as they run parallel to your ship, pulling it through each of the locks. Since smaller ships typically have fewer decks, guests have a better view of the inner workings of each of the locks, not to mention some awe-inspiring views of the massive tankers and cargo ships that they pass along the way.
Being aboard a small ship really dramatizes the locks’ massive size and depth. On a small ship, you descend below ground level, unlike on the large ships. That provides a more powerful sense of the sheer scale of the structure.
Small ships also have the advantage when it comes to personal space. With so much of the action during a transit taking place outside, finding a slice of open deck space on a big ship with thousands of other passengers all wanting the same view can be a real challenge.
Because smaller ships carry fewer people, they tend to have generous amounts of open deck space. That means less fighting at the railing to get that great photograph of your first entry into the locks, or to admire sailing under the iconic Bridge of the Americas, which acts as a sort of unofficial gateway into the canal when you sail in from the Pacific Ocean. It’s also easier to move around the vessel to catch the action from different vantage points.
On a small ship line like Windstar Cruises, there’s an additional — and rare — bonus: the Open Bridge policy. It offers the ability to visit the Captain and officers on the Bridge before or after the transit to hear and see the first-hand perspective of this unique experience in the cruise and travel world. During the transit, you can view and listen on the open decks and throughout the yacht while a local expert narrates the journey through the Panama Canal as the local Pilot directs the Captain through the locks.
Indeed, on a small ship, you can easily hear the sounds of the canal. They’re not drowned out by loud pool music or obscured by movies playing on the outdoor movie screen. Instead, you get to hear the cheers from onlookers at the Miraflores Locks as your ship enters. You’re close enough to other ships that you can lean over and talk to the people scurrying about, handling lines and readying for their own transits. You can hear the strain of the mules as they pull the ships forward, the shouts of the men as they issue commands to one another.
The Panama Canal may be a man-made piece of engineering, but when you’re in the middle of the Miraflores Locks, surrounded by whirring equipment, opening locks, rushing water, and ships of all shapes and sizes, the entire thing feels alive. Nowhere is that electrifying feeling more apparent than on board a small ship. Indeed, I wouldn’t see the canal any other way.
IF YOU GO
From December to March, Windstar’s 312-guest Star Legend and 148-guest Wind Star operate nearly two dozen weeklong Costa Rica & Panama Canal trips through the Panama Canal between Puerto Caldera (San Jose), Costa Rica, and Colón, Panama, or reverse. These sailings include stops in Quepos and Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica; along with a call on lovely Isla Parida, Panama, and a 10-hour transit of the canal.
Aaron Saunders is a freelance writer specializing in cruises who sailed aboard Star Breeze through the Panama Canal last spring. He has written two books on cruising, Stranded and Giants of the Sea, and founded From the Deck Chair, a website dedicated to the cruise industry. Saunders contributes to USA TODAY, Cruise Times and many other publications.