Going through the Panama Canal without a cruise


Q: My husband and I are interested in going through the Panama Canal, but not on a cruise. Is there any way we can do it?

A: The short answer to this, one of the most-asked of all travel questions, is yes: Argo Tours of Panama conducts partial transits of the canal every other Saturday and full transits twice a year.

The partial transits leave at 8 a.m. from Dock 17 in Balboa on the Pacific Ocean side of the canal.

The ship sails though the Miraflores Locks and cruises Miraflores Lake up to Pedro Miguel Locks, but does not enter the locks. The vessel then turns around and goes back past Balboa.

After giving passengers a good view of the skyline of Panama City and the ships waiting passage, the boat heads back to Dock 17, arriving at about 1 p.m.

The trips are made aboard the 100-foot-long Islamorada, which holds up to about 125 passengers. If demand is heavy, the Fantasia del Mar, with a capacity of up to 500 passengers, can also make the trip. In all about 20 partial transits of the canal are made each year.

The cost, which includes the services of a bilingual guide and canal pamphlets, is $40 a person, $20 for children 12 and under.

A full transit of the canal, lasting usually 8 to 9 hours, up to 12 hours if traffic is heavy, is held when the boats sail from Balboa to Cristobal, on the Atlantic Ocean side, for their annual maintenance. Passengers are taken back to Balboa, a distance of some 45 miles, aboard an air-conditioned bus.

This year the Fantasia del Mar will leave Balboa Aug. 8. The second full transit, aboard the Islamorada, has not yet been scheduled, but Argo says it will be sometime toward the end of August, after the Fantasia has completed its time in dry dock.

The full-transit trips cost $50, $35 for children.

Both boats are available for charters through the canal and for cruises around Panama Bay. When the ships are not plying the canal, they are used for trips to the island of Taboga in Panama Bay.

The Islamorada is in service to the island Monday to Friday, and the Fantasia on Saturday, Sunday and holidays.

The fare is $3 each way, children $1.50. More information: Argo Tours, Apartado 9662, Panama 4, Republic of Panama; telephone 011 (507)28-6069, fax 011 (507) 28-1234.

Q: We would like to visit some of the smaller cities in China and are wondering how good the medical facilities are, especially as we would be traveling with younger children.

A: Hospitals in small Chinese cities are described as adequate by Nicholas D. Kristof, head of the Beijing bureau of the New York Times since 1988, who says the staff would tend to be

extremely friendly and helpful to foreigners.

But the doctors would not normally speak much English, he says, and conditions would not be nearly as good as those to be found in the United States or Hong Kong.

While taking X-rays, for instance, doctors in the smaller cities often do not use a lead shield to protect the patient. And because Chinese doctors regard foreign patients as particularly exotic, they might prescribe a particularly cautious treatment, giving more medicine and time for recuperation than would be customary in the West.

Foreign residents of China, Mr. Kristof says, normally go to Chinese hospitals for minor problems or emergencies, but whenever possible they would travel to Hong Kong for treatment.

Q: I will be traveling to Ireland in September and would like information on the Galway International Oyster Festival.

A: The 39th Galway International Oyster Festival, essentially a series of dinners and parades and a giant pub crawl built around a mammoth bivalve-shucking contest, will be held Sept. 24 to 26.

The official opening of the festival will be at 8 p.m., followed by a dinner and reception. Starting at noon on the second day the Pearl of the Oyster, a beauty pageant winner, will present the first oyster of the season to the mayor of Galway. This will be followed by a parade through Galway with floats and bands.

At 2 p.m. comes the festival highlight, the World Oyster Opening Championship, for which participants come from all over the globe.

Contestants are given 30 oysters to open as quickly as they can; time penalties are levied for such infringements as cutting the oyster meat or failing to remove the grit.

The highlight of each evening is the so-called Pub Trail. Pubs present traditional music and singing, and the oysters are on the house if you order a Guinness.

More information: The Secretary, Galway Oyster Festival, Aras Failte, Galway, Ireland; (91) 22066 (the dialing code for Ireland is 353), or the Irish Tourist Board, 757 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017; (212) 418-0800.

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