The Panama Canal was 100 years old in 2014, and it's definitely a must-see for travelers, especially those who appreciate man-made engineering marvels. There are three basic types of Panama Canal cruises, but those who want to see more of the fascinating country of Panama than just the Canal should do a combination land/cruise tour like the one offered by Grand Circle--"Panama Cruise: A Continent Divided, Oceans United".
Grand Circle Travel specializes in small ship cruises and land tours all over the world. Its target market is American travelers over age 50. I've traveled with Grand Circle three times--first on a Russian waterways cruise tour from St. Petersburg to Moscow, the second a land tour of Peru that included visits to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, and this cruise/land tour of Panama. The Grand Circle Panama tour features 7 nights in hotels around Panama and 3 nights on the 24-guest Discovery catamaran, which is chartered from Panama Marine Adventures.
Before taking a photo tour of the Discovery catamaran, let's look at how this transit differs from one on a large ship.
Activities and Stopovers on Panama Canal Cruise
Large cruise ships doing a full transit of the Panama Canal enter in the early morning and then leave the Canal in the late afternoon about 8 to 10 hours later. Only a few ships stop in Panama, so most large ship travelers do not have the opportunity to set foot in the country. Although any cruise that includes a transit of the Panama Canal can be a memorable cruise vacation, only seeing the country of Panama from the deck of a ship may leave some travelers wanting more.
Spending three days in and around the Panama Canal provides a much more in-depth view of the country. The Discovery catamaran is chartered by Grand Circle Cruise Line for 3 nights as part of its 11-day cruise tour of Panama. During those three days, guests use small skiffs to go ashore at Taboga Island, Gatun Dam, and the new Visitor's Center.
The exceptional Program Directors are Grand Circle's well-known strengths. I was glad to see that Octavio the cruise director and the rest of the crew on the Discovery were just as knowledgeable and helpful.
Overview of Three Night Cruise on the Discovery
After boarding the ship at the Amador marina near the entrance to the Panama Canal, the Discovery motored over to Taboga Island, where guests went ashore for a walking tour of the small town. Some returned to the ship early to go kayaking from the ship using the special launch platform.
After watching the sunrise early the next day, the Discovery passed under the Bridge of the Americas and entered the Canal, arriving at Lake Gatun in the early afternoon. The Discovery anchored in the lake, and some guests enjoyed more kayaking before returning to the ship in the late afternoon to go exploring in the skiffs. Moving slowly along some of the islands in the lake, we saw all sorts of wildlife, including one very comical sloth, who "performed" for us despite all the camera clicking and laughing.
The next morning, we took the skiffs ashore and boarded a bus for a tour of Fort San Lorenzo National Park. On the way, we got terrific views of the Gatun Locks when we had to stop and allow ship traffic to pass before crossing the lock. We also rode below the Gatun Dam to get a better look at it. Returning to the Discovery for lunch, we then completed our full transit of the Panama Canal by passing through the Gatun Locks into the Caribbean. The Discovery docked at a marina overnight.
Our last morning on the Discovery, the crew offloaded our bags and we said our good-byes. A bus took us to see the new Gatun Locks Visitors Center, where we had great views of ships in Gatun Lake and the construction of the new locks.
The bus then took us back to a Panama City hotel for our farewell dinner and last night in the country.
Let's now take a photo tour of this marvelous catamaran, the Discovery.
Cabin on the Discovery Catamaran
The cabins on the Discovery catamaran were small but adequate for a three-night cruise. Each cabin is named for either a town in Panama or one of the native animals or birds. Our cabin was "Jaguar", and we had a large painting of a jaguar over the beds. None of the cabins have locks, so those traveling with any valuables need to store them with the Captain.
Some of the cabins have queen-sized beds; others have twins. All the cabins have a private bath, small closet, and desk. The best feature is the large picture window in every cabin.
Cabin Closet and Desk Area
The Discovery catamaran cabins have a small closet and desk with four drawers. The desk also has a 110-volt plug for charging cameras and other electronic devices. The ship does not have WiFi or an Internet connection.
Having sailed on several other small ships, I was pleasantly surprised at how nice the bathroom was on the Discovery. It had a large shower, sink, and toilet. The sink did not have much storage area, but other than that, it was one of the nicest baths I've seen on a small ship. We were provided with bottled water to drink on our entire Grand Circle cruise tour, but the ship's water was okay for brushing teeth.
Panoramic Observation Lounge
This large room is the hub of the Discovery catamaran. It serves as a bar, observation lounge, and dining room. It has plenty of indoor lounge seating for the 24 guests, plus easy access to the outdoor deck areas. The aft area has covered seating on two decks, and the forward outdoor deck has sun lounges.
Seating in Panoramic Observation Lounge
In addition to the large sofa forward in the lounge, the Discovery catamaran has seating at the bar, which is located aft in this observation lounge, with comfortable chairs nearby.
Dining on the Panama Canal
All meals on the Discovery are served in the combined lounge and dining room. The area has three tables for eight guests.
Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style, and dinner is served by the staff. Dinner has a choice of two entrees, and guests are asked to make their selection earlier in the day. Most of the meals had a Central American flavor, which we all enjoyed.
Each guest gets one complimentary glass of wine with dinner, and all other soft drinks, wine, beer, or mixed drinks are reasonably priced.
Outdoor Decks on the Discovery
Aft on the Discovery are three covered outdoor decks. The lowest deck is used to board the skiffs. The kayak platform is connected to this deck. The second deck aft has seating and easy access to the indoor observation lounge. The third deck aft has a barbecue grill and table seating for outdoor dining at lunch.
Skiffs and Kayaks
The Discovery has two small skiffs used to go ashore and to explore Lake Gatun. It also has several kayaks, which are complimentary for guests to use. The kayak platform makes getting in and out of the kayaks easy for everyone. How many people can say they went kayaking in the Panama Canal?
This kayak platform drops into the water after everyone is in the kayaks. When they return, it raises up. No one gets wet getting into or out of these kayaks!
Unloading Luggage on Disembarkation Day
Being flexible is key to any type of travel, and small ship cruises like the Discovery are no exception. Our last night on the catamaran, the ship did not get to dock in its usual spot in the marina. Therefore, as seen in the photo above, the crew had to "walk the plank" to transfer our luggage to the bus. I got a great view of this process from our cabin window. No suitcases went swimming, and I thought this demonstrates how adaptable the crew was on our Panama Canal transit.
Although I thought we would all have to walk the plank too, the crew boarded us into the skiffs and we rode a short distance through the marina to a dock where we could disembark more easily. Just another example of putting the guests first.
Thanks to Grand Circle Cruise Line and the Discovery catamaran for a wonderful 3-night voyage across Panama!
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.