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Cruising the Caribbean — and the Panama Canal

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Cruising the Caribbean — and the Panama Canal

by Michael A. Heuer

Alumni travelers enjoyed Aruba's capital Oranjestad

Photo by Jay Mastin

This past winter my wife, Barbara, and I joined 26 Northwestern Alumni Association travelers on a 12-day cruise around the Caribbean and through the Panama Canal aboard the six-star Crystal Harmony. Our Alumni Holidays International cruise began in late January in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and included stops at St. Thomas, St. Martin, St. Barts and Aruba, before traveling through the Panama Canal to Costa Rica.

The 940-passenger Crystal Harmony was impressive, both for its size (790 feet in length and 12 decks high) and the opulence and the spaciousness of the interior. It reminded us of a five-star hotel.

Each day at sea the Crystal Harmony offered special guest lectures, classes, ship tours, board games, athletic activities and access to several shops, restaurants, cafés and bars as well as a casino. Our greatest difficulty while onboard was not that we had too little to do but rather too many high-quality choices to make.

During the first two days of the cruise, professors from several U.S. and Canadian universities gave lectures on the Caribbean. Then we were in for a surprise. David McCullough, the distinguished historian, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 (Simon & Schuster, 2004), was also onboard and graciously agreed to give two lectures while we were at sea. He proved to be one of the finest lecturers it has ever been our pleasure to hear.

Our first port of call was Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. The United States bought St. Thomas — first visited by Christopher Columbus in 1493 — and the Danish Virgin Islands from Denmark during World War I. But the Danish influence on St. Thomas is still evident in Charlotte Amalie, with its colonial buildings and colorful narrow streets. A free port under the Danes, it remains a top shopping spot in the Caribbean, as we NAA travelers happily discovered.

On the fifth day the Crystal Harmony docked at Phillipsburg, St. Martin, in the Netherlands Antilles. Not as congested as St. Thomas, St. Martin has neat, quaint hotels, restaurants and cafés interspersed between the shops. Little alleys, called steegjes, led to flower-filled arcades and open-air stands.

That night we set sail for St. Barts. Because St. Barts is less than 20 miles from St. Martin, we spent the night circling the islands from the Caribbean Sea into the Atlantic Ocean and back in choppy seas. With 8- to 10-foot swells on the sea, this was the only time on the entire cruise that the motion of the ship was noticeable to those with a tendency toward mal de mer. Wristbands and a dose of ginger kept it in check.

St. Barts is a small island occupying only 8 square miles. With its steep green hills, deep lush valleys and beautiful beaches cupped into a scalloped shoreline, St. Barts was for us the most attractive, picturesque and charming of all the islands we visited. In addition to excellent European shops and boutiques, St. Barts, which is a French island today, boasts more French chefs per capita than anywhere in the world outside of Europe.

On the eighth day the Crystal Harmony docked in desert-like Aruba, the smallest and most westerly of the Netherlands Antilles. We eagerly went ashore in Oranjestad to visit the shops and tall hotels with their sleek resorts and casinos.

The next day we sailed for the Panama Canal, and on the 10th day our ship entered the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side. Before dawn we entered the harbor at Colon passing a long line of brightly lit cruise and cargo ships waiting their turn to enter the locks.

Our ship cleared the three Gatun Locks and entered Gatun Lake. At noon we passed through the Gaillard (Culebra) Cut and crossed the Continental Divide. We cleared the Pedro Miguel Locks and entered Miraflores Lake less than an hour later. By 2:30 p.m. we had entered the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side of the canal. An hour and a half later we cleared the Miraflores Locks and sailed out into the ocean.

By the time the Crystal Harmony docked at Caldera, Cost Rica, two days later we had traveled 2,962 nautical miles (3,406 land miles) from Fort Lauderdale. We cannot say too many good things about our cruise ship and its crew. The accommodations and facilities were spacious, high grade, clean and polished all the time. The amenities and food services were superlative. Menus were high quality and varied enough for most if not all tastes. Our personal attendants, stewards and waiters were attentive to our every request. Entertainers and musicians were also top quality. The Crystal Harmony is a small ship (by cruise ship standards) with a large crew, providing an ambience of an extended family on a holiday.

Did we enjoy our NAA cruise? A resounding yes!

Michael A. Heuer (D56), former dean of the Northwestern University Dental School (1993-98), is a 2001 NAA Merit Award winner. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Naperville, Ill.

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