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Cruising Through the Panama Canal

Although I’ve visited Panama before via land (around thirty years ago) and peered at the canal from the shore, I was looking forward to actually sailing through. A small part of me wondered if I might get bored—I mean, an entire day of canals then lake then more canals before we hit the ocean again. I needn’t have worried because there is a lot to see and photograph.

We watched the men driving the mules, which are large vehicles that are used to keep the ships centered in the lock. They’re a bit like train locomotives since they run along tracks on the edge of the canal. We spotted birds and crocodiles sunning themselves on muddy banks and we watched the canals fill and empty of water, lifting and lowering our ship. It was also interesting watching the ship that sailed in the adjoining canal.

Here are a few facts about the Panama Canal:

1. The canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

2. It was built by the Americans and opened in 1914.

3. Complete control of the canal passed to Panama at the end of 1999.

4. Each ship is charged a toll, depending on their freight weight or passenger capacity.

5. The toll must be paid before the ship enters the canal.

6. Gravity feeds the flow of water that raises the level of the locks.

7. The average transit time to pass through the canal is ten hours but this can depend on the volume of shipping.

8. Pilots board each ship at the start of their journey through the canal.

9. The French attempted to make the canal first and lost over 20,000 workers to tropical diseases. Yellow fever and malaria in particular.

10. Once the Americans took over, they still lost 5609 workers to disease and accidents.

11. Nicaragua was also considered as a place to build the canal. The volcanoes in Nicaragua were part of the reason Panama was the preferred choice.

12. A swimmer swam the canal in 1928. He was charged 36c for his weight of 68kg. The toll charge for most ships is in the hundreds of thousands. The toll for our cruise ship was around $300,000.

Bridge of the Americas

Almost at the canal. It’s time for our adventure to start.

Ferrying lines

Despite our high tech times, these two men row out to the ships with lines. The big ships dwarf the tiny boat.

Entering the Miraflores Locks

Entering the first lock – the Miraflores. I was wondering how we’d fit as the lock didn’t look very wide!

Inside the canal lock

We’re partially inside the lock. It became more obvious that we would fit, but it was a tight squeeze.

One of the mules

One of the locomotions or mules that are used to guide the larger ships into the locks.

Crocodile Enjoying the Sun

A grazing deer

Some of the wildlife we saw while on the canal.

Inside the canal

We’re just about fully inside the canal and ready for the gravity-fed water to lift us up a level.

The gap between the canal wall and ship

Mind the gap! Check out the tiny gap between the wall of the canal and the ship. The rail tracks are those used by the mules.

Mimosa Time

Mimosa time! It was hard work watching and photographing the trip through the canal.

Gutan Lake

This is Gutan Lake, the man-made lake between the two sets of locks.

Gutan Lake Traffic

This is a shot of some of the other shipping traffic waiting on Gutan Lake for their turn to go through the locks. If you’re in a hurry, you can pay an extra fee to get through faster.

The last set of locks

This is the Gatun Locks, and it was easier to see because the locks went “downhill”.

Almost through the Panama Canal

Almost at the Atlantic Ocean. The final part of the Gatun locks.

Traveling through the canal on a cruise ship was a fun way to experience the workings of the Panama Canal. In truth, I thought the engineering and technical stuff would get boring, but the day went surprisingly quickly and I enjoyed it immensely. If you ever have a chance to do this cruise, I highly recommend it.

12 Things to Consider When Choosing A Cruise

Dawn Princess Bora Bora

Cruising is a growth industry within the travel sector, and hundreds of thousands of people spend their holidays in this manner. When I was younger, I dreamed of cruising to warm climes and interesting destinations. I collected brochures, but this type of holiday seemed like a dream to me. Too expensive for a Kiwi girl for a start, and there was the annoying fact I wasn’t old enough to get a job!

These days, cruising is more affordable than ever. Pick a destination anywhere in the world, and the chances are a cruise company sails there.

So, how do you choose a cruise? What factors should you consider?

These are the things you should consider before forking out your money.

1. What do you want from your cruise? Are you looking for relaxation or a party? Some lines cater for the younger crowd while others attract more retirees. Some of the shorter cruises are party cruises. Check it out first!

2. Are you traveling with children? Most cruise lines have a kids’ club and also one for teenagers. Some provide babysitters (for a fee)

3. What time of the year are you traveling? If you want relaxation don’t travel during Christmas/New Year or school holidays because most ships will be teaming with children. Children = noise.

4. Do you want sunshine and beaches? Stick to a cruise around the Med, the Carribean or perhaps the Pacific.

5. Do you like to dress up for dinner? Some lines expect a higher standard of dress, so if you like to wear shorts and a T-shirt all day go for one of the lines that are more casual. No Queen Mary for you.

6. Does the ship have a launderette available to the public? If you have a longer cruise this is important. Laundry and dry cleaning can be very expensive if you pay the ship staff to do it.

7. Do you want/enjoy sea days? Some cruises have several sea days, sometimes in a row, so if you loathe sea days check the itinerary carefully.

8. Hidden costs. The price of the cruise includes travel, onboard entertainment and meals. Be aware that travel to the port, alcohol, special coffees, signature restaurants, internet, ship excursions, and some hobbies will attract extra charges.

9. Room service – some cruise lines charge extra while others provide this service for free.

10. Incentive program – most cruise lines run an incentive program for frequent travelers. Instead of chopping and changing cruise lines, sometimes it is better to stick with the same one and reap benefits like free laundry and internet.

11. Are tender boats used at the ports? Some ports are not equipped for large ships to berth at the wharf, and passengers must be ferried ashore on smaller boats (tenders). This can take some time if the ship is a large one with several thousand passengers.

12. Don’t like a crowd? The ships vary from a few hundred passengers to several thousand. If this is important to you, choose your cruise accordingly.

Want to learn more? Check out Cruise Critics http://www.cruisecritic.com/ and their forum http://boards.cruisecritic.com/ for advice and tips.

Shelley Munro is a romance writer who lives in New Zealand and loves to travel. You can learn more about Shelley and her books at www.shelleymunro.com

Relaxing at the Summer Palace

Thailand was one of our stops during our recent cruise. We’ve visited Bangkok before, and this time we elected to do a trip to see Bang Pa-In Palace, in Ayutthaya Province, which is where the Thai royal family always spent the summer. The current king and queen still hold receptions and banquets here and use part of the palace as a residence at times.

The gardens are gorgeous, full of flowers and mature trees. There are loads of pagodas and places to sit and rest with views of the garden and large bodies of water.

Pond_Bang Pa-In Palace

Peaceful bodies of water to stroll past and admire.

Pagoda_Bang Pa-In Palace

Bang Pa-In Palace

Pagodas to admire  Flowers_Bang Pa-In Palace

Gorgeous flowers everywhere

Garden Topairy

Topiary -  A herd of elephants. They had lots of different animals—a real menagerie, but the elephants were my favorites.

Turtle_Palace

The locals checking us out as we strolled through the gardens.

Royal residence

A corner of the current royal residence. I loved the Wedgewood-like scroll work.

There were lots of other tourists present during our visit, yet the place seemed to absorb everyone and retain its peaceful air.

Shelley

I enjoyed our visit very much, and immediately plot bunnies started jumping around inside my head. Travel does that to me. The grounds and buildings are now a part of a scene in Snared by Saber, my current WIP.

What do you think of the topiary? Have you seen other shapes?

13 Facts About Shipboard Food on the Pacific Pearl

tt_minimal3

I’m home again after our cruise aboard the Pacific Pearl. Those who have been on a cruise before will know about the sheer amount of food available. It’s very tempting to have a little of this and a little of that and before you know it, clothes strain at the seams. I’m afraid I am physical proof of this fact, and I’m officially on a diet. Sick smile

The catering is a huge operation, and I found the food related facts they gave us fascinating.

13 Facts About Shipboard Food

1. 3000 dozen eggs are used during a 10 day cruise.

2. Plus 1000 kg of lettuce

3. 4000 litres of milk

4. 2000 kg of watermelon

5. 1400 kg of steak – hubby ate quite a few of these!

6. 7500 tea bags are dunked and drunk

7. 600 kg of cheese is consumed – I like cheese.

8. 12500 plates, 10000 glasses and 15000 items of cutlery are washed each day

9. There are 29 people on the dishwashing brigade

10. Fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry and fish are delivered when the ship is in port

11. On average 90 tons (180 pallets) of food are loaded on board after passing inspection by the Food and Beverage Director.

12. There are five butchers on board to prepare different cuts of meat

13. 99% of the passengers put on weight. Unfortunately, I didn’t fit into the 1% category. I blame the pastry chef!

Do you tend to eat more when you’re on holiday?

The Holiday That Doesn’t Live Up to Expectations

Diamond Princess, Sydney

At some stage during most of the cruises we’ve taken, the cruise director will read out a list of the top ten complaints/questions they receive from passengers. Here are three for your amusement:

1. The passenger with an inside cabin who complained because they didn’t have a view and wanted the cruise staff to cut a porthole for them.

2. The passenger who complained because the sea was keeping him awake.

3. The passenger who complained because he didn’t get a suntan. He was cruising in Alaska.

This made me think of our past holidays and the things that have gone wrong. Luckily, to date, we haven’t experienced any huge dramas, merely minor irritations.

1. The hotel room in Egypt with mouse droppings all over the bed. The second room also had mouse droppings and I gave up. I slept with one eye open and used my sleeping bag.

2. The hotel shortage in Zanzibar. We stayed on Zanzibar for three nights with the hotels becoming worse and smaller each night. The last room was a small square box with no windows or facilities and we had to run the fan or melt. The fan was really noisy! Didn’t get much sleep that night. Oh, almost forgot. The first night our friends, who stayed in another room, had a nocturnal guest—a rat. They called the hotel desk and it was like a Greek comedy. The story and the size of the rat has grown over the years. We still chuckle about the rat story. Also, the ferry going back to the mainland broke down and we spent time drifting in the humidity while they fixed it.

3. The hotel in Greece that was really still a building site. After two nights we complained and were shifted to a new and much better hotel.

4. The camp site in Kenya. The porters asked if we’d heard any noises during the night. “No,” we said. They’d had to chase elephants away from our tent. When we didn’t believe them they showed us the footprints. They were really close to our tent!

5. The camp site in Tanzania. I was petrified about having to go to the loo in the middle of the night. Luckily I didn’t need to, but the roar of the lions kept me awake all night.

6. Camping once again, this time in Rotorua, New Zealand. It was a wild and windy night, so windy only our weight kept the tent on the ground. There was a few times when I didn’t think that would be enough to keep us earthbound. We ended up driving home at about three a.m.

Do you have any bad holiday stories to share?

Fun Things to Do on the Island of Madeira

Last year one of our final stops during our cruise was the island of Madeira. We weren’t meant to visit the island, but Hurricane Sandy meant a change to our itinerary. Not such a bad thing since Madeira is beautiful.

So what can you do in Madeira?

1. Take the cable car to Monte at the top of the hill. It’s a long ride with glorious views of the city and coast.

2. Visit the tropical gardens at the top.

3. Take a ride in one of the Monte toboggan wicker baskets. Two men tow, then guide your basket down the hill. Some go faster than others. The men who do all the hard work wear a white shirt and trousers plus a straw hat.

4. Visit one of the many shops that sell madeira wine – not really to my taste since it was quite sweet.

5. Wander around the some of the beautiful churches.

6. Check out the markets for fruit, flowers, fish and people watching!

7. Dine at one of the restaurants. I had fresh fish with a madeira sauce, and it was delicious.

8. Try some of the traditional Madeira bread.

9. Go for a sail on the Santa Maria, a replica of Christopher Columbus’s flag ship.

10. Wander in what used to be a red light area. The area had a bad name, but the buildings were given cheaply to local artists. All they had to do in exchange was decorate their doors. These days it’s fun to wander down the alley and check out the different doors.

This is a selection of things to do in and near the township of Funchal. From what I hear the rest of the island is just as beautiful. Maybe next time!

Travel: Lifou, Loyalty Islands

Lifou, which is part of the Loyalty Islands, is a beautiful spot with lots of greenery. The snorkelling is very good here too, although access is down a very rickety and slippery wooden ladder.

Lifou

Once onshore, we walked up a hill to the old chapel on the headland. It was very pretty and the locals had placed flower arrangements inside. They ask visitors for a donation.

Lifou

The white chapel

Here’s one of the locals. The pretty teal color was very striking against the greenery.

Lifou

The snorkelling was excellent. We were there early when it was relatively quiet. Once the other passengers on the ship turned up, the area became noisy and there was a little silt kicked up, which caused vision problems. The ladder access was a bit tricky too.

Lifou

New Zealand: White Island

White Island, NZ

White Island, NZ

White Island is one of New Zealand’s volcanoes—the most active one. The island is privately owned and was once mined for sulfur. I’d never seen White Island before and was looking forward to our visit. We had perfect weather and the volcano puffed out a little steam for us. Part of the crater has collapsed, allowing views of the inside. The cruise ship sailed around the island several times allowing 360 views.

Happy New Year

Milford Sound, New Zealand

This photo shows Milford Sound, Fiordland, New Zealand. I’d never visited this part of New Zealand before. The area is known for its high rainfall, but we had fine weather and spectacular views of the pristine water, mountains and bush. The scenery was stunning.

I’d like to wish everyone a happy, safe and prosperous New Year. All the best for 2011!

A Birthday Surprise

My husband pulled off a wonderful surprise for my recent birthday. I knew we were going away but I thought hubby had organized a quick trip to the South Island of New Zealand. On the day we were meant to leave, he woke me up at a very early hour with a cup of tea. When I went to check my email there was a note attached to the computer along with a flashdrive.

The note said, “Good morning, Shelley. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to insert this flashdrive. It will not self destruct in five seconds, but you may!!”

Curious, I inserted the flashdrive and a movie started. Hubby had booked us a cruise on the Volendam and the movie showed all the ports of call. Honestly, I had no idea. He really pulled a swifty on me :grin:
Luckily I had a few hours to pack and organize/reschedule the few things I needed to sort out before we traveled up to Auckland to board the cruise ship.

Volendam

The cruise started in Auckland and stopped in Mt Maunganui, Napier, Wellington, Picton, Akaroa, Dunedin (Port Chalmers), cruised the Milford Sound before crossing the Tasman Sea to Hobart in Tasmainia, Eden on mainland Australia and ending in Sydney. The surprises kept coming with some fun tours booked and a new bracelet for my birthday. We went dolphin watching to see the rare Hector dolphins, wine tasting, hiking, swimming and sightseeing. We even visited the real Middlemarch where I took loads of photos. I half expected one of the Mitchells to round the corner and say hello. In fact, the Mitchells are so real to me, I was a bit disappointed when they didn’t!

We both had a fun time and arrived home rested and ready for Christmas. It was the best birthday ever.



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