San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Cruise Ships Big and Small Travel to Isthmus

The cruise world was abuzz this week with Monday’s anticipated launch of the Queen Elizabeth, the newest ship in Britain’s venerable Cunard line. Her Majesty herself was set to headline the ceremony for the inauguration of her namesake 2,000-passenger vessel.

Queen Elizabeth – the ship, not the monarch – will arrive in Central America this January with a call at Costa Rica’s Caribbean port of Limón and a transit of the Panama Canal, all part of a 104-day world voyage that recalls sailing’s golden age.

With new ships being launched all the time – 15 are scheduled for this year and seven for 2011 – the title of “world’s newest cruise ship” is always in a state of flux. Some of those call in Central America on various western Caribbean and always-popular Panama Canal itineraries, as well as extensions of cruises that ply Mexico’s Pacific coast.

The Dream is one of these newest, and is the biggest ship in Carnival’s fleet, says Vince Gulliksen, public relations manager for the cruise line. The 3,600-passenger ship with live music, water parks and elaborate children’s facilities now features prominently in calls at Roatán in Honduras’ Bay Islands on seven-day cruises that depart from Port Canaveral, Florida.

“Our approach is to first enter certain ports with a smaller ship and work our way up to bigger ships,” Gulliksen explains.

The approach has worked well for Carnival, Gulliksen says. The line has a firmly established presence in Roatán, with four of its other vessels docking there. Carnival entered Honduras in a big way this year with the opening of its very own cruise terminal at Mahogany Bay, near Dixon Cove on Roatán’s southwest coast. (Holland America and Princess also have transferred their Roatán operations to Mahogany Bay.) The self-contained facility, which is expected to host some 200 ships this year, offers all manner of activities.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Epic, that line’s newest and largest entry into the cruise sweepstakes, also began calling at Roatán this summer. The 4,200-passenger ship features a water park and complex of villas. Norwegian uses the island’s original terminal, which itself is undergoing a refurbishing, at Coxen Hole.

Cruises that feature this part of the world are always popular, says Bruce Good, communications director for Seabourn Cruises, who cites the region’s excellent tour operators and top-quality guides. Good falls into the “It doesn’t have to be bigger to be better” camp of cruise promoters.

Ports of Call

Seabourn’s new mega-size yacht Sojourn is bound for Central America late this year. It will transit the Panama Canal on Christmas Day and will call at Costa Rica’s Pacific port of Caldera two days later. A few other canal transits are in store for Sojourn during 2011 as well.

Though Sojourn is large for a yacht, Seabourn prides itself on offering smaller and more intimate cruise experiences than the large, mass-market ships that ply the region’s waters, Good explains.

“We’ll have almost a one-to-one crew-to-passenger ratio,” Good says of the all-suite, 450-passenger Sojourn.

Seabourn passengers generally go out on their own or in very small groups on customized shore excursions when they arrive in port, Good says.

“We’re generally not loading our people into big tour buses when they get there,” he says.

New kid on the isthmus block – and fairly new to the cruise business itself – Oceania Cruises arrives in Costa Rica’s Pacific port of Puntarenas in February with its new Marina, which will launch one month earlier. Puntarenas is part of Marina’s inaugural voyage, which will run from Miami to San Francisco and is actually its second excursion; “maiden voyage” is the term used for the first.

Marina moves up to the midsize range, yet, with a staff of 800 serving 1,200 passengers, is still able to offer the personalized experience for which Oceania is known.

Windstar Cruises pioneered what might be called the “Let’s go really small” concept in Central America. Its Wind Star makes a series of weeklong excursions here in the isthmus during the peak December-to-March cruise season. They begin and end in the Costa Rican port of Caldera, visiting several smaller ports of call up and down the country’s Pacific coast – Golfito, Drake Bay, Quepos, Curú and Playas del Coco – as well as San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

But for the 2011-2012 season, a series of weeklong excursions transiting the Panama Canal will supplement those trips.

“Costa Rica has been one of our most popular destinations,” says Vanessa Bloy, public relations director for Windstar. “Many of our guests were also requesting a Panama Canal transit, too.”

Most transits of the famed waterway with bigger ships need to be cruises longer than a week, Bloy says, but with the new itinerary beginning in Caldera and ending in Colón, Panama, at the Caribbean mouth of the canal, a seven-day trip is easily accomplished.

“You also get to places that larger ships can’t access,” she says of the 148-passenger Wind Star.

The new itinerary will take in Panama’s Isla Coiba, a one-time penal colony, now national park, off the country’s Pacific coast. Also on the trip is a call at the San Blas Islands, home of Panama’s indigenous Kuna people, mostly unapproachable for larger ships.

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