Most of us have some things on a bucket list we want to do during our lifetime. One of mine was to travel through the Panama Canal. Fascination with, and dreaming about going through the canal began for me in elementary school when I saw a film on the building of the canal.
Last week, the dream became a reality in a spectacular way on Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ship Bliss. This spectacular ship only came out of dry-dock for sea tests a few months ago. It is the largest passenger ship to ever traverse the canal. I am on the Bliss for a cruise from Miami to Los Angeles. The Bliss is an amazing 19-deck ship with everything from a go-cart race track to an upgraded spa with ice room. It has eight specialty restaurants and the Observation Lounge, the most beautiful room I have ever seen on a ship. It was designed for Alaska cruising to allow passengers a 180-degree view while relaxing in total luxury. On our cruise it is the nightly meeting place for the LGBTQ+ happy hour or as NCL still lists it on its daily newsletter “Friends of Dorothy.”
Our fifth day at sea was Panama Canal Day. I was up at dawn and out on my balcony. There was a real feeling of excitement. The ship began to come to life at 5 a.m. and by 6 the sun was trying to break through the clouds as we passed Gatum Dam and headed into the lake where there were a least a dozen other ships, most looked like oil tankers, waiting to traverse the canal. The Amsterdam, a ship that had been by our side in Cartagena the day before was just ahead of us. She is a much smaller ship and was going through the old canal while we were headed to the new one.
More and more people were out on their balconies as the Canal Authority boat brought their pilot on board our ship ready to help the captain guide it through the locks. At 7 a.m. I headed to The Haven, where my travel agent Scott Moster and his husband Dustin graciously opened their suite for the day, serving mimosas, coffee and pastries for breakfast and snacks and an open bar all day. The balcony of their suite 17 decks up and directly over the bow was the perfect viewing spot.
This was an exciting day not only for the passengers and crew of the Bliss but for the canal authority as well. It also meant a lot of money to them. It cost NCL $134 per person for everyone on the ship — that includes the 4,200 passengers and 1,700 members of the crew. They had to transfer nearly $800,000 before we would be escorted through the canal.
It was mesmerizing to watch as we approached the Agua Clara Locks to begin the 40-mile trip that would take us from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. From the time we entered Gatum Lake it took us about four and a half hours to go through the first set of locks into another lake where we would sit and sail slowly toward the second set of locks, the Cocoli Locks. We entered those at about 3 p.m. and were through by 7 heading to Balboa and sailing under the Bridge of the Americas into the Pacific Ocean. The Bliss is such a tall ship it only just cleared the bridge with about five feet to spare and that was at low tide.
Adding to the experience was a private tour of the ship’s bridge the next day with Captain Bengtsson. The tour had been arranged for me by Pam Mallari, the amazing assistant to Hotel Director Jovo Sekulovic. In addition to showing us in detail how the ship is steered, the captain shared his feelings on guiding his ship through the canal. It was the first time he had gone through the new canal and being at the helm of the biggest passenger ship ever to do so made for a very long but exciting 16-hour day. He kidded that as he cleared the last lock he texted his boss, “Made it, no scratches on the paint.”
This item now checked off on my life’s bucket list met every expectation. It’s an experience I would recommend to anyone fortunate enough to have the opportunity.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.