The rising sun peeked under red-orange clouds splayed over the Caribbean port of Cristóbal and backlighted the small armada of ships anchored there, waiting their turn at the Panama Canal. Cups of cappuccino in hand, my wife, Laurel, and I stepped out on the veranda of our cabin aboard Cunard Line's Queen Victoria, two weeks into its 2009 world cruise from Southampton, England.
FOR THE RECORD:
Queen Victoria: A Jan. 24 article about crossing the Panama Canal on the cruise ship Queen Victoria identified a ship in the Port of Los Angeles as the Jeremiah O'Brien. The ship is the Lane Victory, which served in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. —
The still, bright morning last January was already warming to the heat typical of Panama, and we were primed with interest in the canal.
Truth to tell, Laurel is less in love with canals and their attendant locks and tugs and machinery than I.
Queen Victoria's current world cruise ends in April. The next cruise begins Jan. 5. Info: (800) 728-6273, www.cunard.com.
From September through April, most cruise lines offers Panama Canal trips, either full transits or partial transits, the latter turning in Gatun Lake and leaving the way they entered.
"It's a lot like watching grass grow," she'd said in advance. She was skeptical even though I'd extolled the process: chambers filling and emptying, lock gates closing and opening majestically like the jaws of Monstro the Whale, little electrified "mules" -- locomotives -- scurrying into place with cables to hold the vessels off the lock walls.
But by the time we'd reached Cristóbal, it was she who had completed David McCullough's hefty but fascinating "The Path Between the Seas" and thus was able to fill me in about one of the man-made wonders of the world.
When we arrived at the canal we'd been aboard the Queen Victoria a full week. We weren't just marking time, waiting for the main event; we were traveling for the ship as much as the canal. A year earlier, we had sailed from Southampton to New York on the Victoria. We liked the ship enough to book this New York- Los Angeles segment while we were still aboard.
Comparisons may be invidious, but they're inevitable. For the Queen Victoria, the inescapable benchmark is fleet mate Queen Mary 2, and the ships are sometimes confused. Though the Queen Victoria does echo many interior features of the QM2, which was the largest ship ever built when it set out on its maiden voyage in January 2004, the Victoria is essentially a cruise ship, not an "express liner" like QM2, which is built for point-to-point voyages in any weather.
Cunard ships are genuinely distinctive.
"Midnight finds you having the most intimate of moments in the grandest of ballrooms," reads one of Cunard's typical print ads, with a picture of tuxedo- and gown-clad passengers dancing decorously. Well, not exactly. Midnight generally finds us sound asleep, even on shipboard. Still, acknowledging the inevitable promotional hype, the ad's promise that a Cunard voyage "will take you back to the Golden Age of Ocean Travel, when timeless elegance and refined British tradition ruled the day" is a fair summary of how the company sees its niche.
Our 17-night cruise included four formal nights. Though the tux-and-gown thing is surely not for everyone, we like it.
The "Grandest of Ballrooms" touted in the ad is the Queens Room, and for me it's the space most emblematic of Cunard. Both the current Queens have one, as did the now-retired QE2 and as will the Queen Elizabeth, to be launched this fall. So far, I like Queen Victoria's best, with its two-deck-high central space, the upper level lined on one side with stained glass and on the other by a balcony.
Every afternoon, tea -- pastries, finger sandwiches, scones -- was served here in white-glove style, accompanied by a harpist or string quartet. Perhaps because of the preponderance of Brits, a queue for tables typically formed at teatime. The room also hosted four classical matinee concerts by pianist Warren Mailley-Smith, young but with impressive credentials, engaging and abundantly talented.
The library -- two decks' worth, connected by a spiral staircase, holding 6,000 well-chosen volumes -- is another characteristic Cunard space. So is the Royal Court Theatre, and Queen Victoria's is unique in having boxes. On production-show (as opposed to solo-performance) nights, for $25 apiece, passengers who reserved them could gather for a pre-show Champagne reception in intimate lounges to stage right and stage left. After bubbly and chocolate truffles, we'd be escorted by a nattily attired bellboy to our box, where half a bottle of Veuve Clicquot waited.
Most dinner hours, we were in the Britannia Restaurant. Highlights included green pea soup, sour cream foam, pea shoots; Norwegian salmon with horseradish crust and Chardonnay sauce.
We enjoyed all the ports, which included Curaçao, with its fine old buildings and floating bridge across the harbor; Guatemala's Antigua, reached by bus from Puerto Quetzal; Puerto Vallarta's seaside Mexican mountainscapes, and the beach at Cabo San Lucas -- but the Panama Canal was the highlight, from the moment we entered the Gatun Locks at the western end.
"Good morning," blared the speaker on an escort tug, one of a fleet of 25 that had appeared off our starboard bow. "Welcome to Panama."
McCullough used 622 pages to tell the canal's story; in contrast, here are a few random observations. The locks are all doubles, and the Tahitian Princess locked through in tandem with us, along with a pair of container ships. Rowboats have proved the most practical way to convey the cables that the "mules," eight to a ship, each with two cables, use to position the transiting vessels. Thus they're still in use.
Gatun Lake, the canal's center section, was lovely, with lush jungle all around, mountains in the distance, and islands that dotted our passage. Then came the Culebra Cut, the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks, and finally the Bridge of the Americas. The scene leaving the canal in late afternoon was breathtaking. To the south, Panama City was a revelation in the late, low light -- miles of sun-washed high-rises soaring beyond the long breakwater that led us out into the Pacific.
Seventeen days after sailing out of New York Harbor in a snowstorm, we docked at the Port of Los Angeles just as the sky was brightening into a temperate, sunny day. At the pier next to us was a gem: the Jeremiah O'Brien, a lovingly preserved Liberty Ship from World War II -- something nice to look at as the endless immigration process consumed much of the morning. But good friends waited to whisk us off for a splendid visit.
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