The world’s most stylish shortcut
Le Boréal sits in the sweltering harbour of Guayaguil, Ecuador, looking far more like an oversized yacht than a traditional cruiser. She is one of French cruise line Ponant’s five ships, all built for the type of voyageur who adores the sea, loves a little exploration and adventure, but is no fan of those gigantic, soulless, floating resorts bound for predictable destinations. Just one month before we stepped aboard, this streamlined beauté wasn’t floating the Med, but navigating the icy waters of Antarctica, where each year she treats her guests to a sensational polar experience. Now it’s time for some sultry ports of call.
Our 13-day itinerary includes no less than five South and Central American countries: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia and Curaçao. The Panama Canal is also on the schedule … because sailing through one of the world’s genuine engineering wonders should be done in a certain style.
“It’s just like a wine tasting. You have a sip and then later on you can decide if you want more or not”, says Henry, a 50-something passenger, enjoying a glass of wine on the ship’s upper deck and while waiting for the ropes to cast off so Le Boréal can leave Guayaguil behind.
Le Grand Bleu
“Mesdames, messieurs, we have just crossed the equator. Welcome to the Northern Hemisphere”, our captain Etienne Garcia announces zzzmoothlzzzy over the PA in French, then again in juicy English. “Who fancies a dip in the Pacific?” he asks, as he brings Le Boréal to an unannounced stop in the middle of the ocean. Just like that. His team creates a safe zone, demarcated with ropes and zodiac boats, so that passengers can float about in the open water without having to worry about unwanted visitors.
“Dear friends, we have a water temperature of 32 degrees centigrade and two kilometres of deep blue sea beneath us”, he smiles, while looking out over his pop-up Pacific swimming pool. First the guests and then even some of the 140-member crew dive in. I like this Pacific Ocean baptism and I like the captain’s sense of adventure.
After Costa Rica and Nicaragua we’ve finally reached the point in the itinerary that is, for many passengers, the raison d’etre: the landmark Panama Canal, where, in the space of six hours, Le Boréal will swap the Pacific for the Atlantic.
Panama is one of those cities where the unstoppable ambition of South America is palpable. A skyline reminiscent of Hong Kong; an old town (Casco Antigua) undergoing a monumental facelift; and a new town where even Donald Trump opened a hotel.
A pilot, or local captain, comes aboard to steer its passage. “Some pilots take over fully from me; others just lend me a hand. You never know beforehand how friendly or sociable they will be”, quips Garcia. “We’ll have to wait and see…” One of the passengers asks Captain Garcia if this is his first voyage through the Canal. “I’ve sailed through the Panama Canal a dozen times with Le Boréal, but also with an older cruise ship of Ponant, Le Diamant, which is now sold. I always try to make sure we can go through the Canal in the late afternoon – then there is a special atmosphere in the air. The light is getting softer, the colours change – a big contrast with the hard work and hustle and bustle of the locks”, Garcia smiles. “You know, it’s just a mythical route. I love the idea of moving from one giant ocean to another. You can find a mini-version of the Panama Canal when sailing through the Corinth Canal; I also love the natural channels in Chilean Patagonia, or the Prince Christian Sound in Southern Greenland. But this is still something special. It is great to know that we have almost a full ship and that most of the passengers book this voyage especially to experience the Panama Canal.”
Le moment supreme
Finally, late in the afternoon, with the sun low in the sky and evening falling over the Panama Canal, Le Boréal receives its nod to go. More Panamanian port personnel come aboard to attach the special ropes that guide our transit through the locks. Everyone jostles for a good spot on deck — some bon-vivants even order a bottle of Champagne — and cameras are at the ready for le moment suprême.
This architectural marvel is 82 kilometres long and saves ships an almost 13,000-kilometre journey around Cape Horn, as well as allowing them to avoid the treacherous Drake Passage. In Miraflores Locks, Le Boréal is steadied in the water with ropes attached to mulas — sturdy, mini-locomotives that ride alongside the canal on rails. She then sails of her own momentum into the first lock, with only 10 or so metres between the ship’s sides and the walls. The setting and atmosphere are exceptional: twilight, the sound of the mulas, the excited bustle on the ship’s bridge, even the smell of the docks is the stuff of goosebumps. It takes until midnight for Le Boréal to reach the Atlantic Ocean. One of the passengers mentions that the sea level of the Pacific is different from the Atlantic. “It’s strange but it’s a fact. It all has to do with gravity, water temperatures and tides.” How unique our earth is, really.
During the farewell drink, Captain Garcia says that after four intensive months at sea, two of which were spent in Antarctica, he is ready to return to his Douce France for a holiday. “But I will be back. Parce que pour toucher la terre, j’ai besoin de la mer.” To be able to understand life on land, I need the ocean.
Debbie Pappyn and David De Vleeschauwer are a freelance travel writer and photographer duo working as partners in crime for several newspapers and magazines worldwide. Read more about them on classetouriste.be.