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Florida to Los Angeles in Just 17 Days

March 7, 2018

For the past 50 years I’ve been living on the east coast of the U.S., two years in Washington, D.C. and the other 48 years in the greater New York City metropolitan area.  I love New York and all the culture and all the “Big Apple’s” attractions, but I also love my birthplace, Los Angeles,  the weather, the beach, but more importantly, my immediate family are all in California.

So I consider myself very bi-coastal and I’ve made a habit of hop-scotching back and forth between New York and LA numerous times a year.  I’ve driven twice cross country,  but all those other hundreds of times, it’s always been flying.

Once, back in the 80’s if my memory serves me correctly,  I was lucky enough to fly cross- country on the Concorde, a positioning flight back to New York from Seattle, but flying at slightly under the speed of sound so as not to cause sonic booms and create undue controversy on the ground under the flight path.  That was unique, indeed.

After all these years, I’ve finally managed to, literally,  slow down the travel from the eastern seaboard to the west coast – no, not the train and no cars – but  rather, the “slow boat to LA,” with plenty of diversions in between.

princessMy travel experience, bypassing “flyover country,” was the graceful Pacific Princess,  a 670 passenger Explorer-class cruise ship, embarking on a 17-day cruise running south from Fort Lauderdale through the Caribbean, transiting the Panama Canal, and then northwards along the western coast of Central America and Mexico to Los Angeles.

At first glance of the ship when arriving at the Port Everglades port terminal,  the ship seemed smaller than the behemoths I’ve often seen in Miami or Brooklyn.  And in fact, it was very much smaller than some of the newer floating 3,500-plus passenger ships I’ve seen from a distance while driving on the causeway to or from Miami Beach on a Saturday or Sunday morning.

I have been on even smaller ships, some carrying between 100 and 200 passengers, all of which are most pleasant and I’ve come to like the smaller vessels much better.  You get to know fellow passengers and ship’s crew and it all seems a bit more friendly and social.

Boarding the Pacific Princess was easily and quick – it seemed that boarding at 2:30 p.m., keeping in mind the 4 p.m. departure, was utterly painless as we must have been grouped amongst the last passengers boarding.  I also learned that about half the passengers on board had joined in previous ports, in fact our itinerary, was, in fact, the last leg of an “around the world” 111-day cruise which actually began back in late January from Los Angeles.

So in the first few hours of travel, rather than flying over the routine of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, we headed southeast through the Bahamas Channel, north of Cuba, and then after turning due south and passing the Island of Hispaniola, we were bound for Curacao, located in the Netherland Antilles, part of the “ABC”  Dutch island group of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.  The islands are really closest to Venezuela, paralleling the northern coast of South America.

Funnily enough when flying cross country in either direction, one usually encounters a bit of choppy air flying over the Rocky Mountains.  On the cruise, one also may encounter a bit of “chop.”  Plying down through the Bahamas Channel was sunny with serene water,  and the ship could run at its normal cruise speed of about 20 knots.  But then once into the more open Caribbean Sea, the swells and headwinds come alive creating a slightly bumpier ride and the ship is only able to make about 15 knots.  But with very experienced ship’s navigators at the helm,  we easily make Curaçao, our first destination where we are able disembark and re-establish our land legs.

Due to the wind and rough sea, we actually wound up several hours late arriving at Curacao, but it made no difference to the shore or ship’s activities.  The ship’s tour staff were able to reschedule the numerous city and island tours. Individuals disembarked on their own with no problems and set forth on their inspection and exploration of the capital, Willemstad, and unbelievably, a huge lot of passengers never got off the ship.  They just did their own thing relaxing on the ship whilst in port.

willsteadWillemstad is a cute, quaint little town full of colorful buildings, many constructed in traditional Dutch design with others built in a more historically traditional design found in America or the UK.  Tons of shops line the many streets, mostly catering to the tourists coming off the cruise ships.  There’s everything from fresh fruit and vegetables, clothing, jewelry, tchotchkes of all shapes, sizes and color, – lots of it pretty junky – and even a McDonalds for people in need of an all-American fix.  The island’s economy is pretty much based on tourism of one kind or another – one day tourists off the cruise boats or the visitors staying at beach resorts for a week or more.  I found Spanish and English to be the predominant language although many speak Dutch as well as Papiamento, a creole type of tongue that combines Spanish, English and Dutch.

After departing Willemstad and another day at sea, we arrived at Cartagena, Colombia, a city founded  by Christopher Columbus in 1502.  Over the centuries centuries, Cartagena served as a trading port, a pirate’s hideout and one of Spain’s political and very strategic strongholds along the northern South American coastline.

cartaToday Cartagena is a bustling port as well as a destination for sun and beach, particularly attractive during the hard North American and European winters.  It’s real charm is the old city surrounded by a very intact 10-mile wall as well as several old Spanish forts that are in  reasonable condition for tourism.  Inside the walls there is a melange of small shops, restaurants, parks and the most beautiful Spanish style homes and buildings.  It’s definitely worth a day-long walk through.  And if one has time for a quick brunch or lunch, Milas Vargas is a terrific patisserie offering a great selection of yummy selections, including a potpourri  of cakes, cookies and croissants, plus familiar egg combinations and sandwiches.

A day after Cartagena, the ship arrived at the Gatun Locks, Panama,  for the start of the westbound transit of the Panama Canal.  Without going into the minute details of the history and the early crossings of the Isthmus of Panama,- there are volumes written about the trials and tribulations about – the ship’s passing to the Pacific from the Atlantic is most interesting and fascinating, and only by seeing the whole process, one can get an appreciation and understanding of the tremendous effort it took to construct the canal in the early 20th century.  It is, without a doubt, one of the major engineering marvels of the world.

The actual  ship’s crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific takes pretty much ten hours; it goes through three sets of locks, two lakes and one ”cut” as well as one transcontinental divide.

locksProbably one of the most amusing observations about going through the canal process was that most passengers jammed the upper decks to see everything when going through the first set of locks.  That took about two hours.  After passing through the Gatun Locks, the vessel crosses the Gatun Lake to the second set of locks, the Pedro Miguel Locks.  That occurred about midday and the crowd on deck for the second set of locks was not quite the size of the morning lot.  Perhaps many of the passengers were enjoying lunch.

Once through the second locks, the ship crossed through the Culebra Cut, a made-made river or channel carved out of the earth to connect the Gatun Lake and the Miraflores Lake on the Pacific side which then empties into the Pacific Ocean.

During the time negotiating the third lock, the Miraflores Lock, very few of the passengers remained on deck to watch the last lock process.  It was most curious that only the die hard observers and photographers saw and recorded the final transit into the Pacific Ocean.  Granted, many passengers had done it before, but it was quite humorous to see, and count on four hands, the die hards on deck for the last set of locks.  Once out of the locks,  the time being about 5:30 p.m., and into the inlet that empties into the Bay of Panama and the Pacific Ocean, it’s full steam ahead westward and then north towards the next port.

After one day at sea, we arrive at Puerto Quepos, Costa Rica, a small, coastal town two and one-half hours by bus, west of the capital, San Jose.  Puerto Quepos caters to leisure travelers looking for beach, salt-water fishing and even retirees from the USA.  It’s worth a few hours of walking around or visiting the nearby rain forests, parks and beaches.

bagelsOur most favorite find in Puerto Quepos was a quaint little bakery called the ‘Brooklyn Bakery,’ run by a transplanted Israeli named David Oren.  Not only does Oren make real hand-rolled bagels, fabulous doughnuts and babkas, but also an array of fresh sandwiches, salads, smoothies and other delights, all for very reasonable prices.   Brooklyn Bakery also offers free wifi, and we were able to check all our emails, Facebook messages and we made several phone calls via FaceTime and magic jack – all thanks to David Oren’s generous free wifi.  It’s a must visit in Puerto Quepos.

Departing from Puerto Quepos, the ship embarks on a four-day, northwesterly voyage to Topolobampo, a tiny fishing village with a population of just over 6,000, located about 131 miles northwest of Mazatlan, just inside the Gulf of California on the Mexican west coast.

It’s the first time a Princess cruise ship visits this small, deep-water port, famous for its proximity to Copper Canyon, Los Mochis and El Fuerte.  Copper Canyon, situated in the Sierra Madre Mountains, claims to be four times the size of the USA’s Grand Canyon and almost 300 feet deeper.  It also boasts a spectacular train ride which traverses the canyon.  Los Mochis is the closest city to Topolobampo and El Fuerte is a 450 year-old town at the entrance to Copper Canyon and boasts of a supposed connection to Don Diego de la Vega; remember the swashbuckling television and movie hero, “El Zorro.”  That’s where it all started – well, maybe!

Los Mochis is a city of over 256,000 and at the first glance driving towards the town plaza, it’s a little America with such retail establishments including Sears, Wal-Mart, Home Deport, Office Max, Burger King, Subway and KFC.  Certainly the list goes on, but there are also plenty of Mexican stores., i.e. Liverpool, the Macy’s of Mexico, plus lots of small shops and stalls found along the main street of Los Mochis.  Lots of good bargains may be found just be a bit of snooping about the town center and comparing prices.  However of late on some itineraries, Los Mochis is being by-passed because of the rise of violence due to drug cartel wars.

Next port of call to the southwest, almost 200 miles across the Sea of Cortez at the very southern most tip of Baja California, is Cabo San Lucas, “a not so sleepy anymore” leisure port that runneth over with yachts, new hotels, condominium complexes and too many flea market-type shops charging ridiculous prices for less than attractive Mexican souvenirs.  Actually the best prices were found in the luxury shopping mall at the south end of the harbor.

caboThe north side of Cabo’s harbor features some rock formations which are quite unique and beautiful, and a one hour boat tour in and around the rocks features The Arch, Love and Divorce Beaches and several caves really make the area quite inviting.  But the rest of Cabo seems to be getting very overbuilt and even a bit tacky.  Nevertheless, the area is a welcoming warm respite during the nasty months of winter in the Northeast U.S. and Canada.

From Cabos San Lucas, it’s a straight shot north to LA’s port city of San Pedro where the canal trip ends.  It’s a musty, rainy morning disembarking in Southern California, not the usual sunny weather that one expects 350 days of the year.  At any rate, this right coast to left coast sea venture has been down-right illuminating and restful.  The Panama Canal is one of the the world’s engineering marvels and anyone who enjoys the mechanics of travel should put it high on their bucket list.

R E C E N T   U P D A T E

In the last decade or two, both passenger and cargo ships have become longer, wider and heavier necessitating a wider and deeper canal be built through the isthmus of Panama.  Rather than reconstructing the old canal and blocking sea traffic for many years, a new set of parallel canals and locks on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the Gatun Lake have been built, and the new complex opened  June 26, 2016.  Traffic has increased and the massively larger cargo ships are enabling cities around the world to dispatch and receive more timely and quantifiably larger shipments to and from their ports.

For the cruise industry, the new canal means higher volume of transits as well as the ability of the new canal to accept the newer and larger passenger vessels.

Whereas several years ago, the Pacific Princess just made it through the old, narrow canal,  such newer ships like the Caribbean Princess, carrying four times as many passengers, transits the new Panama Canal with speed and ease.  The new canal now takes ships with a breadth of almost 160 feet whereas the old canal could only accommodate ships with a maximum width of 120 feet.

The New Panama Canal cruise now includes a daylong visit to ‘Princess Cay,’ a Princess-leased beach on the island of Eluthera in the Bahamas.  After a day-long bask in the sun, those taking advantage of the beach experience return to the ship, and then the ship sets out for its two-day sailing to Cartagena.

Cartagena, at least the old town of Cartagena, is still beautifully and tastefully intact and offers culture, heritage, food and vistas unlike any other Northern Colombian City nestled along the Ocean.  The Hotel Santa Clara, located pretty much smack in the middle of the old town,  still exudes the charm and delight of 19th century Cartagena.  It is walking distance to small quaint shops as well as the adjacent plaza where hawkers still lure tourists to buy everything from sombreros, dresses, posters and paintings and a thousand other bits of tchatkas.

Horse drawn buggy tours pass the hotel frequently and when one closes the eyes and turns on the imagination, the clip-clop steps of the horses on the narrow cobblestone streets really take one back into historic Cartagena.

From Cartagena it’s on to the new Panama Canal, the 10 year-long project that opened in 2016 and now permits the mega-vessels to transit between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.  Whereas the old lock doors swing in and out permitting ships to enter and exit, the newer locks are actually sliding doors that are much more efficient with their water compartments taking up millions of water less than the old canal.  Yet the older locks work in tandem with the new canal and twice as much shipping now transits the isthmus.

Seeing the old or new canal mechanism work from the deck of a ship, one may only grasp the engineering and construction that went into the world class marvel.  Captain Marco Fortezze, Master of the Caribbean Princess stated, “The new canal is a milestone for my profession allowing the newer and larger cruise ships to make the crossing rather than not having to go south to circumnavigate Cape Horn.  The time, fuel and energy saved with the new canal is nothing short of amazing.”

gehryTwo points of interest not to miss whilst in Panama City are the Frank Gehry Museum of Biodiversity and the Panama Canal Museum which displays the evolving history of the building the old canal over the last one hundred years.  After optional day-long excursions to Panama City or environs, the ships sets sail back to the Atlantic side and onwards to Costa Rica.

The next day the ship anchors in the port town of Limón, Costa Rica, the largest port for banana exporters in Central America.  Driving in Limón is really the art of dodging the huge semi-trailer trucks hauling fruit from the Dole or Chiquita banana terminals to cargo ships awaiting their loads at the harbor.

Aside from banana production, Limón offers are variety of tours including the Veragua Rain Forest National Park with its cable car and zip-line attractions going through the miles of triple canopy jungle.

Walking or driving on the unpaved dirt roads of the forest, with luck one will encounter a three-toed sloth hanging from a nearby tree, a plethora of tiny, colorful, but slightly poisonous frogs jumping from pond to leaf to back to pond and several purpose-built sanctuaries displaying the various animals found in the rain forest.  For the biologist, botanist as well as the conservationist, this natural eco-system is bountiful and ever-lastingly evolving.

After a day in Costa Rica, the ships heads northward to Grand Cayman where the British influence now takes over from the past few days of Latin environments.  Grand Cayman has glorious beaches, especially the ‘Seven Mile Beach,’  just a 10 minute drive from the Georgetown Port on Front Street.  More famous, or infamous, are the bevy of banks and caymanfinancial services companies located in Georgetown as the Cayman Islands are renown tax havens.  The waters and the sky are beautifully clear blue, but the islands are kept ‘awash with green’ with monies pouring in and out of the Caymans.  And aside from several small shopping malls boasting high-end jewelers, plus the usual array of tourist shops in Georgetown, the island’s main attraction is sand, sun and a variety of water sports including diving and snorkeling.

From Grand Cayman, it’s a day and a half back to Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades Terminal and disembarkation.  The Port Everglades cruise terminal #2 does have a Global Entry lane which certainly permits a faster getaway.  Busses and taxies are in plentiful supply to the Fort Lauderdale Airport, Miami International Airport and other locations in South Florida.   The cruise terminal is located minutes away from the Fort Lauderdale Airport and approximately 15 to 20 minutes from the junction to north or south Florida via Interstate 95.

Princess and other cruise companies offer a variety of Panama Canal crossings and tours year round; aside from its century old history and the evolution of new technology aiding the canal transits, the canal still casts a spell of significant enthrallment and revelation.  And Panama, the city, the country, and the people, despite their volatile political past, is still full of riches to behold and cherish.

The cruise lines also like to alter their itineraries from season to season much depending on political situations, acquisition of new resorts and facilities, and passenger likes and dislikes, all charted from months of feedback and surveys.

Information on the wide variety of Princess cruise and excursion offerings is available from its extensively robust website, http://www.princess.com.

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