Cruising the Panama Canal

Celebrity Infinity | Panama Canal | Helen Brahms | Have2Cruise | Cruise Planners | Have2Travel

Celebrity Infinity going through Panama Canal Locks

To listen to the following interview about the Panama Canal cruise click HERE

HELEN: Kia ora, and welcome to the Have2Travel show. I am your host, Helen Brahms from Cruise Planners, and I am super, super excited today, because today I have Susan Hunt from Celebrity Cruises with me, and we are going to be talking about a phenomenal cruise we have coming up on May 2nd of 2017. Yes, that’s over a year away, but that’s okay, because these things take time to plan.

We are going to be taking a group of people, and you may be one of them if you wish to come with us, on Celebrity Infinity, and we’re going to be cruising from Ft. Lauderdale, through the Panama Canal, to San Diego, for 15 nights. It is going to be amazing.

So I thought we would bring Susan on here to help us talk about some of the experiences that you can expect to have on the Celebrity Infinity, as well as some of the experiences we’re going to have in some of the ports of call along the way. So Susan, thank you so much for joining us today and taking time out of your day to be with us on the show.

SUSAN:   Well it’s definitely my pleasure to talk with you about our beautiful ship, Celebrity Infinity, and the incredible trip through the Panama Canal.

HELEN: It is going to be amazing. I have never done the Panama Canal before, so this is one of my bucket list things. I am super excited about that. Now my understanding is that the Celebrity Infinity underwent a 16-million-dollar facelift not very long ago. So tell us, what happened during that 16-million-dollar update that she had?

SUSAN: Well, what they did on board the ship, and in fact, it went across the Millennium-class fleet, but they did a conversion of the—one of the Murano-style restaurants, which on the Infinity is the SS United States, and that was changed to the Tuscan Grille. So that now makes the Tuscan Grill and Qsine, which is one of our highest-rated specialty restaurants on board the Infinity. We also created—

HELEN: I love Qsine.

SUSAN: Isn’t it amazing? Everyone gets an iPad to do their menu items.

HELEN: That has to be, out of all the specialty restaurants I have done, across all the 15 different cruises I have done, that has to be the top one on the top of my list. That experience in Qsine is unbelievable. It is, from the moment you walk in the door and you see these tables with these odd-shaped chairs, none of them match, to when you sit down to the food—

And we had a group of 8 of us, and we actually had to ask them to stop bringing food. But the food was incredible, and it was the way it was presented. It was so whimsical and—I mean we had sushi pops. They had sushi rolls on top of lollipop sticks. I mean—

SUSAN: Exactly.

HELEN: An amazing experience.

SUSAN: The food is amazing, and instead of calling them your waiters, they’re actually your culinary guide through the restaurant, through your experience. And I always tell people, the more the merrier, because then whatever you want to try, everyone can get an opportunity to try it. And like you say, I have very rarely made it to the main course.

HELEN: [Laughter]

SUSAN: It’s one of those things, “Will you please stop? I cannot eat any more.”

HELEN: We made sure we left room for desert, because that was—the chocolate tombstone was to die for, and I’m a big chocoholic, so I have to make room for chocolate.

SUSAN: Yes, yes, yes. I like the fact that—and there’s also one that is cupcakes that you can actually decorate yourself. So they come out—basically the cupcakes come out naked. You have your different tubes of frosting to decorate, sprinkles, different things to put on top. So people have like their kid side come out when they’re eating their desert, because they created it.

HELEN: It is a very interactive meal.

SUSAN: It is.

HELEN: That one I will say. It is very interactive. Each—the way they present the dishes, what you have to do with some of the food items when you get them in order to be able to eat them really does bring out your creativity side, and it is a dining experience like none I have ever had on sea or on land. I have never experienced anything like Qsine before, and I always recommend to my clients when they’re going on a Celebrity ship “If there’s a Qsine on board, you have to go to that.” It is unbelievable. And if you’re a foodie, oh my gosh, you’re just going to die when you go in there.

SUSAN: I agree with that wholeheartedly. In fact, I always tend to, if I do go—when I do go on board—I shouldn’t say if because I’m on board a lot. When I go on board, I’m always making sure that I do get at least one night in Qsine, and then I take my agents with me. I’ve been lucky enough to do seminars on ships, and when they have the first night on board, I usually have everyone meet me there so that we can all experience it.

And it just starts everything off with a much more fun and highly anticipation for the rest of the cruise what’s going to happen. So I agree with you. Everyone must try it once they go on board. It’s just an amazing thing. So I’m really happy that your ship has that, but it’s also going to have Tuscan Grille, which is the Italian steakhouse, which everybody else—people talk about it.

There’s meals in each one. Like in Qsine, I’m always saying you have to get the Kobe sliders. You have to get the sushi lollipops. But don’t forget, at the very end, the Strawberry Fields comes around, even after you’ve had your desert. But in Tuscan Grille, they have their own special foods and such. In there, there’s the Chop-Chop Salad. There’s the Mac and Cheese, which has wonderful crab in it—I’m sorry, lobster, not crab.

So it’s just one of those tastes that people remember these dishes, and that’s like the first thing. I have to have that. No matter what I get, I have to have that. And so these are things that are part of our restaurant’s favorites that people have come to love and adore. So along with having two specialty restaurants, now we also created a rooftop terrace on deck 12 of the aft of the ship.

And what we’re doing with that terrace, first of all, we found that it wasn’t getting a lot of foot traffic, as we call it. People weren’t using that area, so we decided to recreate it, and now it’s a place that we actually will show movies. We’re calling it Taste of Film. And what we do is we show a film. Everyone’s sitting down, watching it in the evening, and then during certain parts of the film, we’re going to have our staff come out, and they’re going to have different things for them to try.

It will coordinate with the film itself. So just think of yourself maybe watching the 100-Step Journey, and that’s about two restaurants. One is kind of like a French restaurant. The other one’s Indian. Well, during the movie, there’ll be a part that they’ll come out with curry chicken salad. So you’re tying that, during the film. So you’re kind of like getting immersed into the film.

But then a little bit later, they may come out with some Jerusalem Artichoke Veloute or Truffle Porcini Risotto, Lobster fue D’afrique, Beef Rogan Josh. So I mean there’s about 10 different little—now they’re appetizers, so you don’t consider it a full meal, but this is something that’s happening up on the terrace, with the movies that we show, and it’s all in a very beautiful patio setting with really nice lounge chairs and sofas, and things like that so people can really enjoy themselves up on that level. We’ve also—

HELEN: That is awesome.

SUSAN: It is. It’s something that—we found that actually some of our competition is actually already trying to encompass it on their ships, so copying us is just flattery. Because we know we’re doing the right things for our guests. So we’re very happy with that. We’ve also put in addition, an enclosed portrait studio, and that’s similar to what we have on the Solstice class.

Basically you can have high-end portraits taken, and they’re in an actual enclosed room, so you’re not taking these photos out in front of everyone else waiting in line to take a photo. But you actually make a reservation, go with your family or your loved one, do the photos. You can buy them if you want, or if you don’t like them you don’t have to buy them. This is still very much open to if you want them or not, but you can make reservations to actually have these high-end portraits done on a more personal level. We’ve also—

HELEN: What a great idea.

SUSAN: It really has worked out well on the Solstice class, so we really are trying to make sure that what our guests have loved about Solstice class, we’re also encompassing on our Millennium class, because she is a beautiful line and one, of course, being the right size to go through the canal. So we want to make sure that we have a lot of things similar on all of our lines, on all of our ships, so that people aren’t going to be disappointed “Oh, they had this on Solstice and they didn’t have it here.” We don’t hear that anymore because we really have taken all the wonderful things and brought them onto the Millennium class.

HELEN: Yay!

SUSAN: Yeah, right? We have done a refresh of our casino and the solarium, and we’ve also done some renovations to the suites as well as new carpets and drapes, and bed linens. So we really have done a big upgrade. And this is not just in suites, but it’s also in public areas. We’ve done general maintenance. We still have the Bistro On 5 on all of our ships, which is the Greek restaurant.

HELEN: I love Bistro On 5.

SUSAN: Isn’t that amazing?

HELEN: Oh my gosh. The Bistro On 5, for those that don’t know, $5 all you can eat.

SUSAN: Well actually, it’s $7.50 now.

HELEN: Oh, it’s $7.50?

SUSAN: Yeah.

HELEN: Okay, it’s changed the name now.

SUSAN: Yeah, I know. Right? But it’s still on deck 5, so… It does still make sense.

HELEN: Okay. But I mean to watch them making the crepes right there—what is it? Crepes, paninis, salads and soups.

SUSAN: Correct.

HELEN: So great place for lunch, for late-night dining, and the deserts are amazing. And you get sweet crepes, savory crepes, and I found out too that they have gluten-free crepes.

SUSAN: Yes.

HELEN: And they will put whatever filling you want inside the crepe. They will put it inside a gluten-free crepe for you. So I was really, really happy to find out about that, because I’m supposed to eat gluten-free. So I was extremely happy on that one.

SUSAN: We definitely—

HELEN: But the crepes are amazing.

SUSAN: We definitely try, across the ship, to offer gluten-free items. Even if you go, say to Café al Bacio, which is our wonderful coffee bar, Italian type, they do have gluten-free desert options. They have some wonderful coconut macaroons there that are gluten-free. We also have—

HELEN: Those are very addictive.

SUSAN: They really are. We try to have it across the board, because we know so many of our guests do have special needs. So we have needs, if anyone’s a vegetarian, even Indian vegetarian depending on their level, the gluten-free. So there’s many things that we have automatically, even though we do prefer you let us know six weeks before the sailing so we can make sure we have extras or some additional items available. If there is a special need, we just want to know so we can make your trip the best possible.

HELEN: I will tell you this: when we were on Celebrity Reflection, I have several food allergies, like honey, onions, dairy, soy, nuts and of course gluten. So I said to them I wanted a chocolate cake made for desert that was—that didn’t have any of my allergies in it. They came out the following night with this amazing chocolate—between a cake and a mousse consistency to it.

It was so good, and they put fresh berries on it, and then they put whatever the sherbet of the day was. And they brought that out, and I said “Okay, I want this every night, with whatever the fresh berries are, and whatever the sherbet flavor of the day is.” And then I was up in the café that we were just talking about, and the executive chef happened to be there with one of his other chefs.

And so they were having their little meeting thing. So I went up to him and I apologized for disturbing his meeting, but I said “I just wanted to thank you and your team for the care that you’ve taken with my dietary requirements.” And explained it to him, and he actually introduced me to the pastry chef, who was the guy in charge of all the pastry area, who was the one who had designed my desert.

SUSAN: Oh, wow! That’s special.

HELEN: So I actually got to meet him, and that was really cool, to be able to personally thank him for creating such an amazing chocolate desert for me. I said “That desert’s so amazing, I’ve ordered it every night.”

SUSAN: He’s probably thinking “I know, because I’m making it for you.”

HELEN: Yeah. But to be able to personally thank the chef that designed it for me was a really cool thing to be able to do.

SUSAN: I agree with that.

HELEN: So I just—I have to give kudos to the catering department, to the food staff there, because they do a phenomenal job when it comes to food allergies, of being able to create amazing dishes that lose none of their flavor, but at the same time take into account what you’re allergic to as well.

SUSAN: Exactly.

HELEN: So they did a phenomenal job with the food. Their gluten-free bread was amazing.

SUSAN: I mean, you know, it’s like if you’re on a diet, that’s one thing. Because everything is so amazing. I tend to always end up gaining weight, no matter how good I try to stick to it, because I want everything.

HELEN: I know.

SUSAN: I just want it all. Well when you were mentioning about being able to go up and talk to the maître’ d as well as to the chef, one thing you’ll see on our ships, which is something, it’s unusual for other brands, is that you will always see our officers and staff out and about, and they’re very open to having conversations with our guests. They really do want to have that face-to-face time.

I’ve had many times that I’ve met the captain or staff captain, or hotel director, in Café al Bacio, and they’ve been very open to talking with you. If you have any comments, concerns, compliments, they love to hear it all because that’s the only way we can know if we’re doing the right thing, if we’re hitting the right buttons, or if we’re missing something we want to fix it before the day is out. And that’s something that we’re very proactive about.

HELEN: Absolutely. Yeah, I can’t praise these guys enough. Everything was just perfect that stay, and to be able to—I mean if we had—we had a concierge class on the Reflection, which I understand is now on the Infinity as well.

SUSAN: Yes.

HELEN: And that was just amazing, the extra amenities. But my most favorite part of the concierge class was the pillow menu, where I got to get the firm, non-feathered pillow that I like. That was just amazing to be able to get that.

SUSAN: It makes all the difference in the world to make sure that you’re as comfortable as you can on our floating hotel, so that every day you wake up and you are going to have your best possible day because you had a great night’s sleep. And we try to attend to everything for you. I mean once they know what you like, I think you’ll find that they’re bringing it to you before you even have a chance to ask.

HELEN: Oh, absolutely.

SUSAN: Yes, definitely. I mean especially the dining. It got a point where they knew I had certain likes that I liked with my meal before I started and during, and I wouldn’t—just getting ready to go and ask them, they were on their way with it, or they’d see me walking in and they’d already have it sitting at the table. So the way that they are intuitive to your needs and making sure that you have that available, so you really don’t have to be looking for it. It just shows up and you’re like “Well, how did that happen?” That’s something that—

HELEN: I don’t want to know.

SUSAN: Well, you know—

HELEN: They can wave their little magic wands, do their magic whatever, but if it makes my stay more comfortable, or makes my journey on the ship more comfortable, I’m all for it, and it just astounds me. I don’t know the reasoning how they do it behind it. The fact that they can do it and wow me, that’s what I love. I love the fact that they can go and do that sort of stuff and amaze me. I like that.

SUSAN: It’s definitely something that we work very hard at, but our crew loves what they do, and one thing that we have in our favor is our ratio from guest to crew is about 2:1. So for every two guests, we have about 1 crew member. So it makes it a lot easier to be able to—not react, but actually just act on your needs before you have a chance to ask.

Because once they know—I mean they really do want to make you happy, and it’s their home away from home just like yours is for a week. They may be there 5-6-7 months. So they want to make it the best possible for everyone that’s coming on board. To tell you the truth, a lot of our crew members, they’ll take their vacation. They get two months usually off between contracts, usually within two to three weeks after they’ve gotten home, they’re already calling back saying “Hey, can I get back earlier?”

Because they miss it. They miss that lifestyle. They have their own family and world there. There’s a whole part of a ship that our guests don’t even get to see, and these people are having fun. They’re interacting. They get time to get off the ship too. So they’re in essence having a long voyage, even though they’re working. They enjoy what they do and it comes through by how everybody feels about our staff.

HELEN: Yeah. And the crew, especially the room stewards, they really do make you feel like you are a guest in their home.

SUSAN: Yes.

HELEN: That nothing is too much to ask them for, and I mean I hate asking a lot of things some of the times. Some of the times I’ll put off asking stuff because I don’t want to bother them. But they make it like it is no bother at all. They’re happy to do it. And it just really gives you that concept of you feel like you’re in somebody’s home and being well taken care of. And it’s just that type of feeling, and I just love that culture that’s on board the ship.

SUSAN: It’s true. It’s true.

HELEN: Yeah.

SUSAN: They’re very, very happy at what they do, and in that case, it makes everything a wonderful life. Because they’re smiling. They’re happy. You walk through the hall, you’ll see them. They’re always happy to greet you and say “Have a great day.” And if you have a place—like in these ports of call, because they have done it, a lot of times if you ask them “Hey, do you know of maybe a nice, local restaurant that’s not really a touristy one or whatever?”

These guys on board our ship, they know because they go off and the first thing they do, because they’ve been eating cruise ship food. It’s wonderful, but when you’re doing it for six months, sometimes you want a change. They will find a local restaurant that gives them local fare in all these different ports of call. And I’ve done it with crew members before where I’ve gone to lunch, and gone to places a little bit off the beaten path, but amazing types of foods. So if you ask them, they’re more than willing to partake in their knowledge.

HELEN: Oh! I have never thought to ask crew members for places to go in port. That is cool, because I love getting off the beaten path.

SUSAN: Exactly.

HELEN: I am writing that one down right now.

SUSAN: It makes all the difference in the world when you have a unique take on the port of call, and that only happens when you ask an insider, as I call it.

HELEN: Yes. Because I love those insider tips. It’s like when I take people to New Zealand, I give them the insider tips. I’ll write down places to stop and see along the way, along their drive. So if I can get that—we stayed in Philadelphia one time, and my husband wanted a Philly cheesesteak while we were in Philadelphia. So we asked the doorman “Where is the best place to go for a Philly cheesesteak?”

And he told us this little place, and it was literally a hole in the wall. It had like seven or eight bar stools there. It was packed. But we had the most amazing Philly cheesesteak we had ever had. So this was from the doorman. So I never thought, connection, hotel staff, ask them on the ship. They’re like hotel staff. Why not ask them what the places are to go?

SUSAN: Right?

HELEN: Man. Okay, I’m asterixing that one. So we now have these amazing experiences on board the Infinity ship, which is going to be taking off through the Panama Canal for 15 days. So what is it like to go through the Panama Canal on something the size of the Infinity?

SUSAN: Well, the Infinity, of course, is the right size to go through there, being that she basically is 965 feet long, and her tonnage is 90,940. So with that, that’s about the largest size ship that can go through the Panama Canal.

HELEN: Okay.

SUSAN: And of course even after 100 years, people are still marveling about the engineering achievement that is the Panama Canal. So on this cruise, they get the chance to marvel at it themselves by being on the top deck. We make many, many views available. So the guests can either be one, up on the top deck. We even open usually the helicopter pad so the guests can go up there.

When I went through, they had someone up there playing music, and they were also—had stations with hot chocolate. Because it starts very early in the morning. So you’re usually—usually getting up. Because if you see on your sailing, it says about 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM the cruising time.

HELEN: Yep.

SUSAN: So by 6:00 AM, they’re actually getting—they’ve already gotten to the opening of the locks. So you’re up there, and if you don’t want to go out, you can watch it on your TV screen. They have the whole thing on camera, and they also have someone that comes on board and is talking you through all the different steps. So you’re getting someone who’s very knowledgeable.

It’s not someone on the ship, but it’s actually someone from the Panama Canal that talks you through the whole motion of going through. It does start off with you—you may have to wait if there’s another ship ahead of you. You have to wait your turn, because only one at a time. But as you’re going through your sets of locks, they show how the little—it’s like a little train or tram on each side of the ship actually hooks up to the ship and that’s what’s actually pulling you through to the different locks.

And then as the water raises or lowers, you’re watching that whole scene unravel in front of your eyes. So it’s quite ingenious how something like this could have been done, and the different levels of water and how these little trams can actually pull our huge cruise ship through those locks, and how the people on the side are walking with it to make sure everything goes precisely as it’s supposed to. In most cases, you’ll have less than 12 inches on either side of the ship between the actual lock wall and the ship’s base. It’s pretty amazing.

HELEN: Wow! Now I remember going through the locks on a river boat in Europe. And on those, we didn’t have anything pulling us. The captain would actually hang over the side of the boat and steer. They had like controls outside on the side of the boat, and steer the boat into the lock, and they had to sit in place within the lock that they had to go. I remember those.

We had less than 50 centimeters, which is like 2 ½ inches or something, on either side of the river boat. You could reach out and touch these walls as we were going up and down the locks. So to go on something the size of the Infinity compared to a river boat size, and go through that process, and you said they had trams that pulled them? So the ship’s not steering into the lock. It’s got trams pulling it through?

SUSAN: The ship will actually steer up into the beginning of the lock, and then on each side of the ship, it is attached to this little tram that’s on its own path. It’s definitely got its own little pathway, and it automatically will start pulling them through slowly. It’s basically to make sure that the ship doesn’t verge to the left or to the right too much. Otherwise she will hit the side of the lock. So it does keep us at the perfect center location going through that lock.

HELEN: That is amazing.

SUSAN: Yeah, it’s very cool.

HELEN: Oh, I can’t wait to experience that. I cannot wait to experience that. I mean going from a river boat to going to a cruise ship, that’s a big difference in size.

SUSAN: It really is. And the fact is that you will see so much more, because you’re so high. There’s going to be certain points that you’re looking down on everything, and then there’s going to be other points that you’re going to feel like you’re right at eye-level because of the different levels of the water as you’re going through the locks.

HELEN: Oh man, I cannot wait to experience that. That is going to be so cool

SUSAN: It is. I mean that’s—to me, that’s probably one of the most fun things, actually watching this. People actually built this way back a long time ago. It wasn’t done in the last 10 years. It was done a long time ago when we didn’t have ships this size. The biggest thing they had would have been just tankers taking things through to make sure it was easier and less expensive to get from one coast to another. So it’s definitely something that I think everyone needs to try at least once, because it is an experience of a lifetime.

HELEN: Yeah. I’ve seen it on the different travel shows they have on TV, where they’re showing it go through the locks and all that, but it’s going to be—I mean when you see sometime on TV, you think “Oh, that will be really cool.”

And I know from experience, from seeing stuff on TV and then actually experiencing it, it gives you a totally different experience level to start with because you’re actually there experiencing it. But the perspective that you’ve not got on how big the ship is and how big this lock is, and how small those little tram things are, is going to be—it’s going to be something that I can’t wait to experience.

SUSAN: Definitely. And the other great thing is that even though you’re going through the locks and you’ll be on the ship, you do get to stop in Colon, Panama. It’s a beautiful port and has a lot of things available to do during your time there. So going through the locks is one thing you’ll be on the ship, but there are different tours available as well once you get to Colon that will enable you to get off the ship and to see some beautiful parts of Panama.

HELEN: Now I’ve read in a book that Colon was founded by the people who built the Panama Railroad.

SUSAN: Yes.

HELEN: So that alone would have some great history, because I just love history, so I’m going to be all over this one.

SUSAN: Well, and not just that, but there’s also an expedition to an Embera Indian village, because there are Indian villages that are still in Panama, that still go by the old way. In fact, if people just walk to—there’s like a shopping plaza not far from the port, if they just go in there, there’s usually an actual dance demonstration from Indians that came down from the mountains.

And depending on if you’re shy or not, usually it’s everybody is just dressed from the waist down, women and men. And they do their dance routine throughout. It’s really a very beautiful exhibition of their dance and of their history, because this is something that they’ve been doing since their Indian tribe was actually around. But even if you want to do a little bit more about the locks, they have an echo cruise on the Gatun Lake and locks that you can do out of Colon.

There’s also different encounters that you can do. A lot of them do have to do with going back to the actual lock where they have history inside the building there, and you can also watch from outside looking at a ship going through the locks. So you can have two different views if they want to see both what they saw on the ship as well as watch something go through the canal and what’s happening. Now there’s always going to be—

HELEN: That would be cool.

SUSAN: Yeah. I know it’s just amazing. Depending on what they want to do, they can go to Ft. San Lorenzo and to the Gatun locks, which is in Colon. They can go to the Biomuseo museum and go to the old canal zone. They have aerial trams there. They have echo adventures. If people want to get into Gatun Lake and do a kayak, they can do that.

So there’s so many different levels of excursions. So it’s not just going through the locks but seeing what Panama offers. Because they are very healthy area of ancient traditions and they do have very proud people who maintain their culture and lifestyle, long after the Spanish colonization. So there’s so much to offer in Panama.

HELEN: That is going to be awesome. Just when you said that you can go back and you can see, after experiencing going through the locks, you can then go back and watch a ship coming through the lock.

SUSAN: Yes.

HELEN: That would be awesome, because you’ve got those two different perspectives.

SUSAN: Exactly.

HELEN: I’m just like wow, that is so cool!

SUSAN: It is. They also will have—there’s an excursion, if you want to find out about the future, the present and the future of the canal, because of course there’s an expansion of the Panama Canal happening. So you can discover the workings of one of the most incredible engineering marvels in the world, and also see history about how it was done as well as what they’re going to be doing in the future. So depending on how much they want to know, they can be totally immersed and probably come back an expert or they can go through it and then see what other adventure is ready for them in Panama. I found—

HELEN: I actually look at engineering people like wow, it just blows your mind.

SUSAN: Yeah. I mean I’m kind of like a wildlife person, but I also like to know a lot about the city. We do have a grand tour of Panama, and that’s going to take them throughout the heartland to discover one of the most incredible feats of engineering, of course the canal.

But it also takes you all through Colon as well. So we have that, or if you want to go on a monkey watch, because they have a great thing. They have a little ship that will go through and—through the canal, and you can go on this monkey watch, and they have howler monkeys there. They have different types of monkeys there. And so depending on what you want to do, Panama really does have it all available.

HELEN: Oh that would be so cool to see the wildlife, just a completely different—what’s the word—flora and fauna.

SUSAN: Exactly.

HELEN: The wildlife and the different—because you’ve the different rainforest, you have all of that there as well. Wow, that would be awesome to see.

SUSAN: I mean really, there’s something for everyone once they get there. And if you’re just—sometimes you’re like me and you just want to go on a shopping tour. We have that. But we also, for those who really do want to learn about the tropics, we have the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute there that we can go to and you can learn so much more about the tropics.

HELEN: I’m going to need like three days there.

SUSAN: Well, you kind of do. You kind of do. Which makes it good, because you’re going to be in Colon from 9:00 in the morning until 7:00 at night, and then the next day is when you’re going to actually do the Panama Canal. So it’s really going to be—you’re going to have two days. One full day for touring around and doing whatever, and then you go through the locks the next day, which is going to be all on board the ship.

HELEN: Awesome.

SUSAN: So you really are going to have a lot of fun there.

HELEN: Oh yeah. I think I may have to go back to Panama just as a visitor and do the land stuff at some point later on, after doing all that. Because you’re talking about all the different cool stuff that you can do while you’re in Colon, and I’m just sort of like “Man, that’s going to take me at least three or four days, and I’ve only got one.” But that’s one thing I like about cruising is you get a taste of different areas, and for people like me who want to go back and get immersed, that gives me a good thing of “Oh, I really want to come back here and do this and do that.”

And so it gives me a place that I can go next time on a land vacation rather than on a cruise. So it gives me that flexibility to be able to do that. That sounds awesome. So once we go through the Panama Canal, we then go to Costa Rica. And I’m looking forward—I’ve heard so many things about Costa Rica. All my friends have been to Costa Rica say “You’ve got to go to Costa Rica.” So I’m finally going to get there.

SUSAN: Well, Costa Rica is probably one of the most beautiful places right now, very untouched. I have friends actually that have built homes there for when they retire. And they’re in like a forest area. They say “Oh yeah, you walk outside and the monkeys are around. We have a coffee field and we have bananas. We have this and that.” They say “We really don’t have to leave our property, although everyone is so friendly and accommodating and helpful.”

They just absolutely love Costa Rica, and I have been there. I’ve been on like a little tour that took you through a river area that you saw all types of wildlife, and they stopped at a little area where they had a little show they put on with the local music, and some nice lunch, and some nice drinks, and just a really beautiful place. All the, like you say, the flora and the fauna is amazing.

To me, it is another one of those places that if you are definitely into nature, Costa Rica is amazing for that because they’re so beautiful. I mean Panama’s going to be very similar. When you get down so far south, they’re very similar. But Costa Rica just has a little bit more of an edge to its forests, to its highlights. There, I mean you have so many things available there.

Again, we have echo cruise tours. We’re very much into getting in touch with nature for those guests, because that’s the big thing now is to really encompass yourself with the locations you’re going to. So we have very many echo cruise tours that we make available, and even some of them are accessible. So if there are people that come on the cruise that maybe can’t walk around as much as others, we do have tours that are available that are going to go to their specific needs.

HELEN: Oh, that’s cool.

SUSAN: Yeah. We want to make sure that everyone has a good time and that everyone has a great experience. And not everybody has the best walking availability. They might be able to walk for a half hour, but maybe two or three hours is going to be way too much. I actually took my mom on one, and she had to, for long walks, be on a wheelchair, but she was able to do many of these tours, and she had a great time.

HELEN: Oh, that’s awesome.

SUSAN: One she wouldn’t do, but this would be a lot of fun, especially because you do like to get out there, I can tell, Helen. Is they have an—

HELEN: Oh yeah. I’m a traveler.

SUSAN: Yeah. Well in Puntarenas, we have an aerial tram rainforest adventure, and this is definitely something—

HELEN: Oh, I’m there.

SUSAN: And it’s like having—you’re going to be in a picturesque gondola ride through a beautiful Costa Rican rainforest. So this is definitely something that would be available, but for those who maybe are a little bit more country, they have an Andalusian horses show and countryside. We have combination tours that have the canopy and jungle horseback ride and crocodile boat tour. So I mean there, right there, you’ve got three different things.

HELEN: Hang on. Run that one past me again. You’ve got the what and the horseback?

SUSAN: It’s original canopy tour. Then you have a jungle horseback ride, and then you finish with a crocodile boat tour.

HELEN: Wow! That would be so cool. I think I’ll sign up for that one then.

SUSAN: Right? And if you’re a coffee connoisseur, they have a Costa Rican coffee plantation experience. I love coffee. So there’s tons of things to do. This is just a little smidgeon of what we offer. For those guests who want to try and narrow it down, we narrow it down to whether it’s considered high-impact, medium or low. So if you don’t want to do a lot of walking, if you want to do quite a bit, or if you want to just sit back and relax. All of those are available; you just have to let them know how you want to take your tour.

HELEN: That is really cool. So after Costa Rica, we go to Guatemala. So what can we expect in Guatemala? What can we experience there?

SUSAN: Well, in Guatemala we have—well first of all, it’s a beautiful old country. So you can explore Antigua at your own pace there. There’s plenty that you can see along the cobblestone streets. It’s a very world cultural heritage site.

HELEN: Cool.

SUSAN: So you’re going to a place that is really beautiful. They have beautiful colonial homes. They have restored churches and convents. They have old world palaces. They have great curbside cafes. This is all well within walking distance of the port. We could take you there by a little shuttle, or you can go by port—I mean by walking.

HELEN: Awesome. And I understand there’s a lot of Mayan ruins around that area too.

SUSAN: Definitely there are. We do have available an auto safari that you can do yourself, or you can go on a tour that’s going to take you into the past and present. We have deep sea fishing. Let me just see about the—I wanted to check that one thing that you were just asking about.

HELEN: Deep sea fishing, ooh!

SUSAN: Well you know you’re the best—you’re in the best area when it comes to having the wilderness, the water, all of that around you.

HELEN: You’re just tempting me with all of these different shore excursions, and I know I’m not going to get them all done in one day. So I’m going to have to go back to these individual places and do several, just stay there for a week or something and get in all these attractions like the deep sea fishing and to go and visit all these beautiful homes and the palaces and things, and just learn about the area and get immersed in it.

SUSAN: Right. Like Panama, we also will be able to take you to indigenous villages, and you can see textiles and experience them. So these are all really amazing, but there’s also the Pacaya volcano climbing. So if you’ve ever wanted to climb a volcano you can do that.

HELEN: Oh, I’ve done that. I’ve actually been down inside one, too.

SUSAN: I thought you might, because of where you’re from. But—

HELEN: We have a few of those in New Zealand.

SUSAN: But no, if you want to just enjoy yourself and maybe have a little chocolate and shopping, we have a Mayan jade chocolate and colonial antilla, and that’s—

HELEN: Oh, you said the magic word.

SUSAN: It’s just it’s an amazing thing, because what you’ll be doing is you can immerse yourself there, and you’ll have a rich Mayan colonial heritage throughout a fascinating workshop, and it’s at a chocolate museum, and it’s followed by a visit to a jade Mayan museum in Central Plaza.

HELEN: Are there samples at the chocolate museum?

SUSAN: Yes. I mean of course, you’d have to. Right?

HELEN: I know. You can’t go to a chocolate museum and not have samples.

SUSAN: Now I know a lot of people think that the Mayans are only in Peru, but actually the Mayan phenomenon is also in Guatemala. So you can discover ancient capitols there. So that’s something that would also—I’m a big lover of going to ruins, and I’ve been to Machu Picchu, and I’ve been to a lot of these really wonderful ruins. And to me, that’s something that I love is to go see those old civilizations. In fact, we even have a Tikal expedition, which is a day trip, and that’s a journey to a well-preserved Mayan ruins of Tikal, in the middle of the sunny Guatemalan rainforest.

HELEN: Oh, awesome.

SUSAN: So I’ve gone through things that are really just—it can take you from the beginning to the end of the—of your experience, depending on what you want to see, how you want to see it. We make it all available.

HELEN: Yep. Excellent. And from Guatemala, we go up to Puerto Vallarta, which I have to say, I have been there a couple of times, and the second time I went was on a cruise with another travel agent who actually goes there quite often. So she took us on the off the beaten path trip, where we actually caught a bus into downtown Puerto Vallarta, and then she took us up into the back streets to this little hole in the wall type of place where we had these most amazing fish tacos.

And then we went walking all the way down to Romantica Beach, to that area there, and we actually stopped at some place that was selling real estate and went up and checked out the apartments that they had for sale. That was also a good bathroom break too, because we couldn’t find the public restrooms. But they had one there. So we made use of the clean facilities, and then we caught the bus back to the ship.

That was just one of the best days I’ve had there. It was completely just getting out there and into the streets of Puerto Vallarta and seeing what was going on and everything else. But my husband went parasailing when we were there one time. Other people have gone to the beaches and stuff and hung out at the beach. There’s a lot that can be done in Puerto Vallarta.

SUSAN: Oh definitely.

HELEN: But my experiences going through—walking through the—and we walked a lot that day. The pavements were all cobblestone and uneven. Because I remember the next day I was sitting with my foot up because I had a bad sprained ankle anyway. And that was enough to aggravate it with all the walking we had done.

SUSAN: Especially on the cobblestone.

HELEN: Yes, especially on the cobblestone. And I spent the next day with my foot up, and ice on it just to get the swelling down. But it was one of the best tours. I remember my friend telling me that—she said—oh, sometimes when you’re on the busses, they have buskers that come on the busses and play on instrument or they might sing. And we were like “Yeah, right.”

And so we’re on the bus and these two women come on. This woman had a backpack on the front, on her chest. I thought “That’s kind of a strange way to carry a backpack. And then she had a blind woman with her. We were riding along down the street, and all of a sudden we start hearing this beautiful operatic voice, and it was the blind woman was singing, and the backpack was a portable karaoke speaker with a microphone.

SUSAN: Wow.

HELEN: And so that’s what they were playing. And then after they finished, they were going down with their hand out to get—but it’s up to the bus driver whether or not they let them on. I thought “That’s really cool.” And then on the way back, this blind guy gets on with a guitar, and later on he just starts playing on the guitar as we’re driving down the street.

SUSAN: It’s great getting a show with your…

HELEN: Yeah, she said “I know that this happens. I’ve only experienced once, but twice in one day.”

SUSAN: Well, you know they want to make sure that you go back with a lot of memories, and that does give you a memory. How often does that happen where a musician will just get on board and next thing you know, you’re on a bus and you have live entertainment?

HELEN: I know. It was an amazing experience. And it’s part of a culture down there. So I absolutely loved it. We weren’t doing any of the tourist spots. We were going to out of the way places to have lunch, to have refreshment drink in the afternoon. We went down to the Romantica Beach, and they turn around and said “Don’t sit in any of the blue chairs.” I’m like “Why not?” They said “Because it means that you’re available.” I was like “Okay.”

SUSAN: Oh, that just told me something.

HELEN: Yeah. And the white chairs you’re okay, but the blue chairs mean that you’re available and you could get approached.

SUSAN: Oh wow. Wow. Learn something new every day.

HELEN: I know. And so it was quite interesting to watch. So we’re like watching what was going on, and there were people that were sitting in the blue chairs. And sure enough, people were coming up and talking with them, and chatting with them. And some people in the blue chairs got up and walked away with them, and some people didn’t. It was an interesting thing to sit and watch. People watching.

SUSAN: It makes it very interesting when you know there’s more to the story than just different colored chairs.

HELEN: Yes, and you know why there’s different color chairs.

SUSAN: Right. Well now you’re talking about going to a lot of beaches and walking around. I’m from Miami, so that’s one thing I don’t do, beaches, just because one, I have them here, and two, I’m a redhead, fair skin. So I don’t do well out in the sun. But something that I have done, and I don’t know if your guests would be interested, but there is a colonial San Sebastian, which is in Puerto Vallarta.

It’s nestled in the heart of the Sierra Madre Mountains, and it lies—it’s one of Mexico’s greatest treasures. And that’s San Sebastian. So they do that, but they also do dolphin encounters for anyone who’s ever wanted to swim with the dolphins. They have a couple of those available. But again, like you say, you can just walk around and go to the beaches, go to different hideaways, go to different venues that are available there, and you’ll have an amazing time. Because you probably might be a little tired from the other ports, and you may just want to lay out in the sun.

HELEN: I remember my first time in Puerto Vallarta. I took my niece and she wanted to go shopping. So we knew we weren’t going to let her go by herself, so I went with her while everybody else went to the beach. Because coming from New Zealand, I’m an outdoors person, but I am not a beach person. And so—which sounds strange being from New Zealand, but that’s me.

And so I took my niece and we went to—we had never been—it was sort of like offers coming from all over the place, and this is—when you’re in Puerto Vallarta and you’re buying something, don’t forget to haggle the price. And we, between Daniella and I, we found out we were the worst hagglers ever.

SUSAN: Oh, wow.

HELEN: We had a lot of fun looking at different things, and she bought a dress. She tried haggling the price, and we discovered that between the two of us, we are the worst hagglers out there.

SUSAN: Well that to me is the fun of the day.

HELEN: She ended up paying more for the dress than we should have.

SUSAN: It’s part of their lifestyle, so it is a lot of fun to go there and see. I’ve had friends that we’ve gone and we’ve been like “Okay, well how much did you pay for that? Because I saw and I got it priced down to this.” And they would be like “No, I got it for this.” “Darn it! I could have…”

So you really have to start comparing notes with people who are good at it to help you learn. But it’s definitely something that is fun. It’s actually part of the experience. If you just offer them a price, if you just pay the price they tell you, they kind of look at you funny. Because it’s like “Well wait a minute. You’re not playing fair.”

HELEN: But I think some of them know that. There must be something written on our forehead, like “Know nothing about haggling.” Or “Really bad haggler.”

SUSAN: I’ve done pretty well, but then I am from Miami, and we’re used to always try to get something a little bit less than what you get told it is. But yeah, that’s part of the fun, and whoever does go shopping, please make sure you haggle. It’s fun for everyone.

HELEN: Yeah. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.

SUSAN: That’s very true. And those things will come in handy in many countries. So haggling is great.

HELEN: So then from Puerto Vallarta, we go on to Cabo San Lucas. And this has to be—it’s like a little hidden place. I know the ships tender there because they can’t dock. So you do have to take the tenders to get into town. But I didn’t—there was a couple of times I’ve been there. I didn’t go far from—I just stayed in the little town area, and the coffee shop there, you buy something good, they give you the code for the Wi-Fi.

And so I was able to get a little bit of work done that day. This was the day after I’d sat with my foot up, so I didn’t want to aggravate it any more by doing a lot of walking and stuff. But I know there’s a lot of great stuff to see around there. It’s a great place to go for whale watching if it’s the right season.

SUSAN: True.

HELEN: So I’m not sure if when we’re going to be there would be the whale season or not. I’ll have to check that one out. But there’s a lot of great stuff. There’s those little beaches you could go to. There was—again, with the beaches for those that want it, there was—there’s an underwater garden you can go and have a look at, with the glass bottomed boats.

Lots of different things, but all I did was just stay in the central business district that’s right by the port where the tender comes in. Because like I said, I didn’t want to go aggravating my ankle any more than it already was. But it was a nice little town just to sit there, and it had this nice little market you could wander through. I bought a piece of silver jewelry. I can’t remember the way they told me to—oh, you’ve got to rub the silver. You have to rub what you think’s the silver, and if something comes off in your hands, then it’s not the real stuff or something.

SUSAN: True. But you can get great—that’s one place definitely, haggling for silver is acceptable as well. And they have the most beautiful silver pieces in Mexico. Make sure you are going—the ship will always tell you places that we consider to be viable and a good place to go, so you don’t have to worry about not getting what you’re paying for.

You can definitely find things out as well. You just really do need to check what you’re buying to make sure that it is real, and then do your best to get the best pricing on it. I’ve gotten some beautiful silver pieces in Mexico. It’s my favorite thing to do, shopping there, and for silver especially. But you were talking about things to do.

HELEN: Yep.

SUSAN: There’s something that we do in Cabo that really kind of cracks me up, but it also sounds like a great thing, especially if you don’t really want to do a lot of walking, although it is considered strenuous. It is you can embark on an unforgettable echo adventure through the Baja California outback, and it’s on camel.

HELEN: On camel?

SUSAN: On camel.

HELEN: Cool!

SUSAN: So talking about something different. Yeah, there’s many different whale-watching that we have available, different size boats that are going to be taking you out. You can go fishing, or you can go parasailing. We even make available if you want to do Cabo your way, you can get private arrangements by van with a driver guide, and this is something that we can set up for you.

This is basically Cabo on your own time in your own van at your own pace, and it’s about a four-hour period of time. And that’s something that I think is pretty amazing for those people who maybe want to get around but they really don’t want to do much. They want to have—they don’t want to get in and out of busses, or get in and out of taxis. This is a great way to do it. They even offer fly boarding adventures. If you want to play golf, they have something there for you to go and do a golf course there in Cabo San Lucas. So there’s so many things—

HELEN: What is fly boarding?

SUSAN: Fly boarding, okay. Fly boarding is an ultimate rush. As you fly like Superman up to 50 feet above the water. You’re going to be surfaced on exhilarating fly boarding adventure. So it’s sort of like being on a rope, but you’re also like sort of on a—it’s not really a surfboard. It’s smaller. So it is a board that you’re on, but you also kind of like go up, so you’re on a rope as well. So it’s sort of like water skiing, but it’s on one big board and you can do things up in the air. It’s pretty cool. It is adventurous.

HELEN: I’ll have to check that one out.

SUSAN: It is definitely an adventure for you to do, but it is available, and it’s something that would be one of those, for those of you who do like to get your adrenaline going, that would be one way of doing it.

HELEN: Cool.

SUSAN: I’m dying. I want to do this camel through the desert. I really want to do that.

HELEN: Put me down for the camel ride too.

SUSAN: Right? But they still have the coastal highlight tours. So we can take you in the dramatic scenery of the Baja California peninsula and discover the region’s rugged coastline. They have unique rock formations, and also Cabo’s main highlight. So these are things that are available. These for me, I would say they’re very inexpensive shore excursions to get you out and to see more of it without being too much walking.

Because that’s considered moderate. So you wouldn’t be doing too much, but you can also do a coastal cruise, seasonal whale watching. Like you mentioned, that’s available. And I have to tell you that pricewise, the excursions are much less than you’d say an Alaska whale watching would be.

HELEN: Okay.

SUSAN: So it’s definitely something that they can do that won’t be killing their bank. Because you’d be looking at the end of your cruise and figuring “Oh, I’ve got to do some shopping before we get home.” Or maybe “We want to do some more drinking.” But they also have horseback riding. So there’s so many things available once you get to Cabo. And again, this is your last port of call. You have one sea day before you land in San Diego. So you’ll have—

HELEN: A great time to rest up.

SUSAN: Exactly. Because you’ll be resting up by this point now. We didn’t really talk about the first two, and I don’t know—you didn’t talk about Cartagena. That was your—

HELEN: Oh, we sort of skirted over Cartagena.

SUSAN: Yes, we did. That’s actually your first port of call before you get to Colon. So Cartagena is beautiful. I mean you really can stroll through Cartagena’s romantic cobblestone streets. You can explore old town. You can take advantage of exclusive deals that are made in the city. They have historical old city walking tours available in the afternoon.

They have—it’s a walled city, so you can go into their walled city and get to view everything that’s there. We also have their historic district. They have spectacular views of the old city and the new city, from the walled city area. And we have great things that you can do. They have coffee tastings that they make available. They have a hop-on/hop-off bus tour, just like they do in a lot of big cities. So if you really want to go someplace and do your own little tour, that’s the way to do it because you basically will be getting off and on the bus as you want to.

HELEN: And isn’t the old part of the town, where the walls are, isn’t it part of the UNESCO World Heritage?

SUSAN: Yes, it is.

HELEN: Perfect. I love those places, because I love going in, when something’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, I love going in there, because it’s as it was when the people lived there, and I love seeing how they kept it that way. And it gives you an insight into how the culture lived back then to how they are now and how they’ve developed and everything. It’s kind of really cool to do that. Mind you, I’m a history buff. So that kind of stuff’s really cool.

SUSAN: You’re right. I mean—and honestly, when you’re seeing the fortress, you can see its brilliant achievements, but also it has a lot of dark secrets. So it has history. It has its own life and breath to it, and people definitely come away with a different view than maybe what they originally thought of the city before they went there. So it’s really wonderful.

HELEN: Excellent. Well, we’re almost at the end of our time. So if anybody would like to—if you’re listening to this and you would like to know more about the Panama Cruise that we’re going to be doing, departing on May 2nd, 2017, so that’s next year, go to Have2CruisePanama.com, and that will take you straight to our page that has the information.

And for the first 10 staterooms that book, you will receive a complimentary dinner for two in one of the on board specialty restaurants. So you get to try either Qsine or you get to try the Tuscan Grille. I highly recommend Qsine. But not only that, Celebrity has a promotion going on right now where you get to receive free drinks and up to $300 on board ship credit from now through May 1st.

So that’s all combinable with our great cruise that we’re going to be having coming up. So please go there. Have a look. You can contact us through the website as well. And Susan, I just want to say thank you so much for coming on our show today and helping us understand more about what it’s going to be like sailing through the Panama Canal.

I cannot wait to try some of these adventures that we talked about today. It is going to be phenomenal, and I am just like shaking with excitement, and yet I’ve got to wait—hang on, I can tell you the number of days from today—I have to wait 383 days.

SUSAN: Oh, it will go by super-fast.

HELEN: I know.

SUSAN: It was my pleasure talking with you today, and hopefully your group will be nice and large, and I can try and do something extra special for everyone on board too. So I really, really am excited for you and for your guests, and anything that you need, please make sure that you talk to Helen. And Helen, in case she needs me, she knows how to reach me. We have a direct line. She’s a wonderful travel agent. You can feel completely safe in her hands and her helping you go through the beautiful Panama Canal on Celebrity Cruises.

HELEN: Well thank you again, Susan. And for everybody else, we look forward to hearing you on our next Podcast. Hei konei ra.

About Helen Brahms

World globetrotter, Helen Brahms, is your Luxury Travel Concierge. She specializes in creating unique once-in-a-lifetime travel memories and charity fundraising trips. Whether your travel dreams include exotic locations or time with your family, you can have it all. Helen loves to help people cross destinations off their travel bucket list before they take a dirt nap! Helen is the host of the Have2Travel Radio Show (www.Have2TravelRadio.com) and is the author of the book "Congratulations, You're Going On a Cruise! Now What?" and the co-author of the book "Passionistas Talk!: The Best of the Passion Point Interviews (Vol. 1)"
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