From the moment I saw the itinerary for a Panama Canal cruise with Holland America, the cruise became a part of my travel bucket list. The appeal? Making several visits to Central American cities along the Pacific Coast, completing a full transit through the Panama Canal, visiting Colombia, and essentially relaxing in luxury aboard a mid-size ship for anywhere between 10 to 24 days. I was hooked on the itinerary and imagined this to be a “someday” cruise, but was pleasantly surprised to see Holland America seasonal sales offering my dream cruise at a price I couldn’t pass up.
For many, the highlight of this cruise is the full transit of the Panama Canal–one of the seven wonders of the modern world. I admit this was an incredible experience. A full day is devoted to maneuvering the ship from one body of water to another, and seeing the precise process is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. Still, I have to argue the port destinations are an amazing attraction in their own right. My cruise began in San Diego and wrapped up in Fort Lauderdale, with port stops in Puerto Vallarta and Huatulco, Mexico; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala; Puerto Corinto, Nicaragua; Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica; and Cartagena, Colombia.
In Puerto Vallarta, my spouse and I explored the beach and downtown area along the Malecon. Huatulco was another walkable port, so close to the shops and eateries in La Crucecita. For both of these destinations, we covered most of our self-exploration by foot and hopped a taxi when it was time to head back to port. An excursion seemed best for Guatemala as we were drawn into the idea of visiting Antigua where architectural influences include Spanish Baroque and Colonial. Similarly in Nicaragua, an excursion to Colonial Leon drew us in as we wanted to see the city’s baroque and neoclassical architecture. When it came to Costa Rica, my love for coffee insisted we join an excursion for Costa Rica’s Countryside & Coffee Experience. On this excursion, we visited Espíritu Santo Coffee Plantation in Naranjo before visiting the town of Sarchi. In Colombia, we returned to on-foot exploration, taking a short taxi to the old walled city and then exploring the Bocagrande.
This may sound like a costly adventure, but I’ve cruised with Holland America (HAL) in the past, so I subscribe to their sales alerts and bonus offers. Doing so puts dreamy itineraries within reach, as I know when to take advantage of an unbeatable price drop. I also find Delta’s Skymiles Cruises to offer incredible mileage bonuses paired with bonus perks during sales. However you prefer to book a cruise, HAL’s Panama Canal itinerary is one I highly recommend for its well-rounded exploration of Central American port cities, cultural experiences, and overall luxury.
My Panama Canal cruise was aboard the MS Westerdam, a mid-size ship offering all the perks of an all-inclusive cruise with plenty of optional amenities to heighten the experience. I’ve previously sailed on the Westerdam, but noticed beautiful upgrades and improvements made in 2017. Most notably, a variety of new music venues were added, including the Lincoln Center Stage and Billboard Onboard, which offers live performances of chart-toppers in a relaxed lounge. These new venues enhance an area known as the “Music Walk” experience, joining other performance venues such as B.B. King’s Blues Club and leading to the Main Stage where the Westerdam Entertainers are a favorite of mine for evening entertainment. Other new offerings on the Westerdam include the exclusive Rijksmuseum at Sea and an expanded Explorations Central.
For bucket list cruises, I always go for verandah suites as the perk of having a private balcony is worth it to me. This was especially true for our day through the Panama Canal, where we were able to watch mesmerizing technicalities from a fabulous vantage point. From watching marine life during the day to soaking in sunset views with a cocktail, the balcony is also a great spot to take a quiet breather in between ship activities. And there is plenty to do on-board beyond the music and art mentioned above. Each evening, guests receive a full listing of the available activities offered the following day. From fitness classes to bingo, enrichment classes to special performances, Holland America ensures guests of all ages are catered to with a variety of entertainment and cultural offerings.
For those, like me, who also like to take it slow and relax a bit while onboard, there’s plenty of opportunity. In addition to two pool decks and a variety of sundecks, the Greenhouse Spa offers an assortment of packages and solo treatments, including an inviting hydropool and heated loungers in the thermal suite. Greenhouse Salon also provides all sorts of pampering details to make you feel extra special. During my Panama Canal cruise I opted for a haircut and style before a romantic night out, and I loved how relaxed the salon environment was with incredible ocean views.
Speaking of romantic evenings, there are incredible fine dining options aboard HAL’s Westerdam. From Canaletto’s Italian fare to Rudi’s Sel de Mer special pop-up night with fresh seafood selections, guests can customize dining experiences to accentuate what’s already included in the cruise package. During my Panama Canal cruise, my spouse and I enjoyed a beautiful evening at Pinnacle Grill—a great venue for seafood, steaks, and decadent desserts. The Dining Room, included with your cruise, also offers a spectacular menu and is a good option for group dinners.
For casual meals and quick bites, I loved the variety of options offered in the Lido Market. This was my go-to spot for dining day and night and I found the staff here to be so warm and welcoming. For out-of-this-world fries, I highly suggest Dive-In, a snack bar on the Lido pool deck offering cooked-to-order burgers and Nathan’s hot dogs. And, finally, 24-hour in-room dining is included, so guests can enjoy breakfast on their private balcony, or fill a craving into the wee hours of the night. I loved having coffee service delivered before sunrise.
Cruising the Panama Canal with Holland America was a bucket list vacation I was able to enjoy earlier than anticipated thanks to keeping an eye on seasonal sales. No matter when you take this voyage, you’ll find incredible value with Holland America for their all-inclusive approach that offers more dining and entertainment options than you can possibly indulge in on one single cruise. Perhaps, like me, you’ll enjoy your cruise with HAL—and start counting down to your next wish-list vacation.
Lori A. May is a Seattle-based travel writer.
Photo credits: CT Shier and Lori A. May