ALONG THE PANAMA CANAL — Nina and Fred Fenton have gone on 40 cruises, including five times through the Panama Canal since 1998, but they keep coming back.
While aboard the Norwegian Sun on their latest journey into the storied waterway linking two great oceans, the retired couple from Lincoln, California, mused at the simple — yet very efficient — workings of the century-old engineering wonder.
"This is a true marvel," said Nina Fenton.
"It's amazing how they were able to do what they did back when it was built, and it is still functional today," added Fred Fenton.
My wife and I met the Fentons during a 15-day cruise from Los Angeles to Tampa, Florida.
On one sunny (and very hot and humid) fall morning, throngs of passengers leaned on deck railings to watch as the ship slowly edged into a series of canal locks lifting it 85 feet (26 meters) above sea level for entry on the Pacific side and lowered it the same amount as it sailed into the Caribbean Sea at late afternoon.
Twenty-six million gallons of water can flow into a lock in just eight minutes. Gravity fills the locks with water from Miraflores and Gatun lakes, which are located on the continental divide between the locks in this 48-mile-wide (77-kilometer) isthmus.
Electric locomotives attach cables on both sides of ships to ensure they are centered while slowly motoring on their own power through each lock. Our huge cruise ship had just a few feet to spare on each flank.
"It's a fantastic experience," said Ronny Borg, captain of the Norwegian Sun. "I never get tired of it, and I've been through the canal maybe 20 times."
Borg said the shortcut between oceans, which cost Norwegian Sun a $379,000 transit fee on this trip, saves ships three to four weeks that otherwise would be spent going around the southern tip of South America.
My wife Gina and I had earlier been on cruises into the eastern, western and southern Caribbean, Alaska's Inner Passage, the Mexican Riviera and Hawaii. We were looking for something different, and the day-long journey through the Panama Canal was truly fascinating.
"It's amazing that this whole system was envisioned and built more than a century ago and is still working well," said cruise passenger Roger Mathison of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Mathison and his wife, Pat, spent the day taking dozens of canal passage photos from various decks and playing cards near a cafeteria window that offered an excellent view. At one point, they even saw a large crocodile in the water.
Most major cruise lines and some smaller ones offer lengthy Panama Canal trips from one U.S. coast to the other, primarily in the drier September-April period. Ships on shorter cruises go into the canal, turn around and return to their ports of origin.
As our cruise ship carefully nudged through the locks, we had a bird's-eye view of other in-transit vessels in the next lane. The daylong journey also offered a glimpse of the massive construction project that will add an adjacent third lane of canal traffic, allowing even larger ships to use the shortcut in the future.
Existing locks are 1,000 feet (305 meters) long, 110 feet (34 meters) wide and 45 feet (14 meters) deep. The new locks will be 1,400 feet (427 meters) long, 180 feet (55 meters) wide and 60 feet (18 meters) deep. A Panama Canal Authority spokesman said the project should be completed in late 2015 or 2016. Construction of the existing canal was finished on Aug. 15, 1914.
Norwegian Sun is one of the largest ships that can transit the canal, Capt. Borg said.
"We are the widest ship today that can go through," he said, explaining that the vessel measures 105 feet (32 meters) at it widest point.
Our ship was 540 miles (869 kilometers) north of the equator when first entering the canal from the Pacific Ocean. Although there were no port stops during canal passage, we earlier docked at the Mexican ports of Puerto Vallarta, Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas, as well as Puntarenas, Costa Rica. After leaving the canal, we stopped at the busy South American port of Cartagena, Columbia.
Each stop offered a variety of activities, from scenic tours to zip-lining, and from shopping to simply being beach bums. Numerous sea days on Norwegian Sun also provided relaxing meals at its many restaurants, access to the pools and spa, and a plethora of other activities and amusements.
Watching the ocean on a sea day, I spotted a whale spout (unfortunately not the whale), several dolphins chasing prey, dozens of flying fish and a four-foot (1.2-meter) shark.
While crossing a suspension bridge on a hike a through the Costa Rican rain forest two days before entering the Panama Canal, Gina and I were stung several times by a small swarm of aggressive bees. While painful, it was a small price to pay for an unforgettable trip that took us from one side of the Americas to the other and turned the clock back a century, for one special day in the tropics.