Viking Star - Panama Canal

Mike and Sandy have wanted to check out the new 930-passenger ocean-going cruise ships run by Viking, and picked a relatively short, close-to-home itinerary to do that. They boarded the Viking Star at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, traveled through the Panama Canal, and disembarked at Los Angeles 18 days later.

On this sailing, the Viking Star was about 85% full, so the typical high staff-to-passenger ratio on Viking was even greater. There is no casino, and no one under 18 on board. There's no extra charge for the alternative restaurants, and wine is included with both lunch and dinner. The Captain, Cruise Director, and other senior officers are way more out and around the ship than we were used to on Holland America ships. The ship has the usual fitness center and salon, but in Nordic fashion, also a big sauna, etc. The evening entertainment was good, although there are fewer daytime activities on sea days than we are used to. Overall, this ship and crew did not disappoint -- it does indeed deserve its great reviews.

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But since this cruise began in Florida, they went a few days early for a visit with Ada and Chuck, Florida residents with whom they have done long (multi-month) cruises several times. Chuck and Ada live on a lake in Vero Beach, a small town on the coast a couple of hours north of the Ft. Lauderdale cruise port. Vero Beach also happens to be the headquarters of Piper Aircraft --- Mike took flying lessons in a Piper back during high school and college days.

Since this trip is mainly about the ship, here's some pictures from all around it.

There were a lot of sea days, but the ship did stop at several ports as it "repositioned" around to Los Angeles. (The ship will be doing Hawaii and South Pacific itineraries for the next several months.) The first visit was to Cozumel, Mexico. Mike and Sandy have briefly been here before, so this time took the guided tour to San Gervasio, a Mayan site dedicated to Ix Chel, goddess of the moon and fertility. (Too late for us old folks!) Of course the tour also included a few minutes for us to help the local economy at shops along the pier.

After a couple of days at sea, our next stop was Cartagena, Colombia. Mike and Sandy visited here years ago, so this time they opted fot the quick city tour, including the old Spanish fort (1536), a quick look at the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town, and a chance to give a little boost to the local economy.

The last stop before the canal transit was Colon, Panama. Although Mike and Sandy have been through the canal several times, they had looked forward to seeing Colon and Panama City, neither of which they have ever visited. Unfortunately, unrest and demonstrations against expansion of a large copper mine in Panama had blocked streets and shut down attractions, so it was only the canal transit once again. Given their age, it's doubtful Panama merchants will ever have another chance to be enriched by Mike and Sandy's visit.

There are new locks, built in 2016 to accommodate the huge so-called NeoPanamax container ships, but our ship headed straight for the old (1914) locks Mike and Sandy have seen before. This transit we were the only cruise ship in sight, with most traffic hauling freight. We could see the effects of the ongoing drought in the water levels along Gatun Lake's shores. The Culebra Cut, terraced in solid rock, was the most difficult part of the construction. At one point in our transit, the newer, larger locks are parallel to our path, and we saw this mammoth container ship. Late in the day, the final set of locks took us from the canal into the Pacific Ocean.

Now in the Pacific, their ship turned north, and called at Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Costa Rica is a big exporter of coffee, pineapples, cashews, etc., but also becoming well known for its Eco-Tourism. On this day, there was a colorful local group on the pier to welcome us, and then ashore in a town founded in 1574, we saw an outdoor performance of some traditional Tico dances. And like at most tourist-oriented events of this type, some tourists were lured out to join in with the kids.

The original itinerary included a stop in Nicaragua, but this was cancelled due to unsettled conditions in the city. That meant we had four days at sea (not ideal on a smaller, destination-oriented ship like this) before reaching our last port of call, Cabo San Lucas. Rough weather descended upon us between Costa Rica and Mexico, with green-looking passengers and a few broken dishes. Sandy practically never has bad colds, but caught one here on the ship.

Arriving at the Cabo harbor, where we dropped anchor, gave Sandy and Mike an opportunity to capture a picture of the famous arch rock. Cabo was the only port on this trip that didn't have a pier big enough for cruise ships, so we got to see how Viking handles their tender boats to get passengers to and from the shore...... and they are pretty good at it! Once ashore, we went by the famous Cabo Wabo bar (owned by Van Halen front-man Sammy Hagar), and took a tour to the nearby quieter city of San Jose del Cabo, where most ex-patriats and well-to-do foreigners choose to live. Along with trendy shops and art galleries, its central plaza has an old Jesuit mission church, founded in the early 1500's.

The next two days shouldn't really be called "days at sea" but rather "packing days" because we were now in the home stretch heading for LA and disembarkation. The overall trip was enjoyable, and the ship and crew quite impressive.

Viking became famous for its European river trips, and they have applied many of the same concepts to their ocean cruises, e.g., inclusion of a shore excursion at each port in the price of the cruise, lots of information on ports visited, very efficient shore excursion process and staff, etc. But this "destination-orientation" (as some reviewers have described Viking) means they may not be the best choice for itineraries that involve many consecutive days at sea.

And Sandy and Mike managed to catch bad colds on the way home, but don't attribute that to the Viking Star!
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