Transit the Panama Canal on a Holland America Line Cruise

Transit the Panama Canal on a Holland America Line Cruise

Transit the Panama Canal on a Holland America Line Cruise

Transit the Panama Canal on a
Holland America Line Cruise


WJ Tested: WAVEJourney Cruises from Fort Lauderdale to Seattle on Holland America’s ms Amsterdam



Earlier this year we were in a quandary. Our business had taken us to Florida for two separate travel adventures and we simply didn’t want to return home by plane. Flying is one of our least favorite things about travelling, and we have been known to go to great lengths to avoid getting on an airplane. This time was no different. We chose the path of least resistance: a cruise through the Panama Canal from Fort Lauderdale to Seattle. We would rather spend 22 glorious days getting home via a ship than one long tedious day in the air.

Holland America Cruise Line had served us well in the past, and we relied on them to get us home from our latest adventures. The fact that we would sail through the Panama Canal was without question, the proverbial icing on the cake. We both had always wanted to experience a passage through the Panama Canal and we were so excited that the time had arrived.


Panama Canal Cruise - Gatun Locks

Panama Canal Cruise – Gatun Locks

The American Society of Civil Engineers included the Panama Canal in their 1994 list of Seven Wonders of the Modern World, noting the “greatest civil engineering achievements of the 20th century”. This modern marvel is truly worth experiencing if you have any interest in man’s determination to overcome tremendous obstacles and create something with staying power resulting in a positive economic impact for the transportation of goods and people (think pleasure boats and cruise ships).

As early as the sixteenth century, the idea of a canal had taken root. First it was the Spanish who had grand ideas, then a British plan failed, followed by several years of actual construction activity by the French leading up to the United States taking control and building this marvel over the course of ten arduous years. The Panama Canal was completed on August 15, 1914. The U.S. managed the waterway until noon on December 31, 1999 at which time it was handed over to Panama to operate, administer and maintain.


Panama Canal - Pedro Miguel Locks

Panama Canal – Pedro Miguel Locks

Holland America’s Amsterdam with approximately 1942 souls (1327 pax + 615 crew) aboard began our transit of “The Ditch” around 5:30AM on May 5, 2016. This 50-mile or so waterway connects the Atlantic Ocean (Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean by means of man-made lakes and a series of three sets of locks (Gatun, Pedro Miguel, Miraflores). Our Panama Canal passage required twelve hours of travel time. We were aboard the Amsterdam throughout the day and walked our dogs off taking in this remarkable feat from every angle.


Holland America Line - Panama Canal Itinerary Map

Holland America Line – Panama Canal Itinerary Map

This cruise itinerary took us to 14 ports in 8 countries (USA, Bahamas, Columbia, Costa Rica, Nigaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, Canada), with many of the destinations new to us both.


Old Town Cartagena in Columbia

Old Town Cartagena in Columbia

  • Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA – Embarkation day and sail away to the Bahamas.
  • Half Moon Cay – Our ship was the only one at Holland America Line’s gorgeous private island in the Bahamas.
  • Cartagena, Columbia – A half-day in the morning allowed just enough time to visit the Old Town.
  • Transit Panama Canal – A full day was spent transiting the Panama Canal as ms Amsterdam entered the canal from the Atlantic at Cristobal in the Colon District of Panama. The ship exited the canal at Balbao in Panama (near Panama City) and sailed into the Pacific Ocean.
  • Puerto Caldera (Puntarenas), Costa Rica – While many passengers chose to take shore excursions, we spent the day wandering the town and hanging out with the locals watching a soccer match on the TV in a beachfront bar.
  • Corinto, Nicaragua – This small town with an industrial dock is not close to much else. So most passengers either took shore excursions or did the same as us and wandered into the town to see what the local life was all about. We had a fascinating time taking a pedi-cab ride for an hour around the town and getting to where the locals live.
  • Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala – The highlight for many passengers was taking a shore excursion to the UNESCO city of Antigua – a 90-minute drive up into the mountains. We weren’t feeling the need to venture far from the port, so stayed at the pier and enjoyed the facility (shopping, restaurants, WiFi, bars, museum).
  • Puerto Chiapas, Mexico – The port area had a pool cruise passengers could use, plus a few shops and WiFi was available. We took a shuttle bus to and from Tapachula (US$10 per person), which was a 30 to 40-minute drive. There was ample time to walk the city market, do some shopping, and enjoy a cerveza at a local hang out.
  • Huatulco, Mexico – Our time here was far too short to do all we wanted. This was about a 5-hour call, so we got off the ship as soon as it was cleared and found a fisherman to take us on a sightseeing trip in his boat. We saw some of the beautiful coastal bays along the Huatulco area before being dropped off at a secluded beach to snorkel. Perfect, but just too short a time.
  • Puerto Vallarta, Mexico – With our next port being cancelled, the ship stayed here much later in port. This allowed most passengers to take a more relaxed approach to the day. We jumped on a couple of local buses to get to Mismaloya Beach – where we spent the day under the palapa of a beachfront bar.
  • Cabo San Lucas, Mexico – Cancelled.
  • San Diego, California, USA – A friend we met on another cruise earlier this year picked us up and showed us some of the highlights (Balbao Park is incredible) before taking us to her neighborhood where we enjoyed a terrific lunch at her favorite Mexican restaurant. There is always loads to see and do in San Diego.
  • Santa Barbara, California, USA – Cancelled.
  • San Francisco, California, USA – This port was added on and was a very nice surprise as it is one of the most spectacular ports to sail in to. As we have visited San Francisco many times, we were content to spend the day wandering Pier 39 and through Fisherman’s Wharf.
  • Victoria, British Columbia, Canada – The ship arrived early afternoon and didn’t depart until almost midnight, so there was plenty of time to see the sights of British Columbia’s capital city. It is an easy stroll from the pier into the downtown where there’s lots of shopping and dining as well as the British Columbia Parliament Buildings and The Fairmont Empress Hotel.
  • Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada – As this was home for Viv for many years and Jill has visited the city numerous times, we decided to stay on the ship. The best part was we had asked and received clearance for a few family members to visit us on ms Amsterdam while she was in port – that was so much fun.
  • Seattle, Washington, USA – The day we dislike the most during our cruise was waking up to a grey and rainy morning in Seattle. It’s not that we dislike Seattle, it was because we had to disembark and make our way home.


Smokey sky in Guatemala

Smokey sky in Guatemala

Weather and smoke… If you are not a fan of hot and humid weather, this cruise itinerary might not be for you. All the way from Florida to Puerta Vallarta the temperatures were in the 80’s to 90’s and the humidity levels averaged 74%+. We like some humidity because it makes our skin look wonderful (much more youthful), but dripping with sweat after walking a block is not for everyone. Also, we learned that April and May is when the cane fields and other agricultural field burning happens. From the moment we approached Costa Rica until we departed Mexico, the air was thick with smoke – some days it was so bad it was difficult to see very far. If smoke is a problem for you, make sure to take a cruise at another time of the year.


Sailing in to San Francisco

Sailing in to San Francisco

With every cruise itinerary comes the possibility of changes being made before and/or during the sailing. Often times this can be due to weather or out of safety concerns. The ms Amsterdam had just completed a 4-month world cruise the same day we embarked in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for our Panama Canal journey, and at some point a problem had arisen with the tender docking doors – they were broken and would not be fixed during our cruise. So it was necessary for Holland America to make some port changes where tenders would be used. We ended up missing two ports on the schedule – Cabo San Lucas in Mexico and Santa Barbara in California – but were pleasantly surprised with the addition of a day in San Francisco. It turned out that sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco was another highlight of the cruise.


ms Amsterdam in Cartagena

ms Amsterdam in Cartagena

The flagship of Holland America Line’s fleet is ms Amsterdam, the third ship to bear the name in the company’s 143-year history.


  • Built in 2000
  • Built at Fincantieri shipyard in Italy
  • Passenger capacity = 1,380
  • Crew members = 615
  • Gross tonnage = 62,735
  • Length = 780 feet
  • Beam = 105.8 feet
  • Maximum speed = 22.5 knots

The ms Amsterdam is a sister ship to ms Rotterdam that we sailed aboard for 7 weeks in 2014 from Rotterdam to Cape Town. So although the ships have somewhat different décor, the layout is almost exactly the same – which made it very easy for us to find our way around. This medium-size ship is very stable in rough weather (we hit some good swells in the Pacific between San Francisco and Victoria), has a wonderful crew of various nationalities (Europe, Indonesia, Philippines, India, etc.), sails exciting itineraries (just check out her Grand Voyages and world cruises), has a variety of dining venues (Main Dining Room, Canaletto, Pinnacle Grill, Lido Restaurant, Dive-In at the Terrace Grill), and provides passengers with a wide assortment of onboard lectures, classes, and entertainment.

Dinner at Canaletto on ms Amsterdam

Dinner at Canaletto on ms Amsterdam


When asked what we enjoyed most during the entire cruise, each time we have answered that it was the day spent transiting the Panama Canal. In fact, even though we love long cruises and enjoy visiting new destinations, the one day that was the biggest highlight was the transit day. We definitely encourage anyone that has the slightest desire to see this wonder of the modern world for themselves, to take a Holland America Line Panama Canal cruise… Just go do it!


WAVEJourney joined Holland America Line for their 22-day Panama Canal cruise on ms Amsterdam from Fort Lauderdale to Seattle – April 30 to May 22, 2016.


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