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We were just on a partial transit on the Coral Princess, and elected to take the "Panama canal by boat" excursion. The cruise ship will arrive at the canal early in the morning, giving you the chance to experience the Gatun locks from the open decks. After transiting the Gatun locks, you can either stay on board, and watch again as the ship exits the canal and then proceeds to the Cristobal pier; alternatively, and ONLY if you have a princess excursion, you can tender off the ship in Gatun lake, go on your excursion, and then re-join the ship at cristobal pier.
We took the panama canal by boat excursion, which was long but wonderful. This involves boarding a motorcoach for a 1.5 hour ride to a yacht harbor on the other side of gatun lake. You then travel by small boat through the rest of the canal, including the other 2 sets of locks. Although it was amazing to transit the Gatun locks on the coral princess, it was an equally wonderful but very different experience being in the smaller ferry for the second two sets of locks (we could actually touch the walls of the lock chamber and feel the temperature difference as the water level dropped). It really was the best of both worlds!
After leaving the small boat in Panama City, there was another 1.5 hour motorcoach ride back to the Cristobal Pier in Colon. There is shopping at the pier...we especially loved the Embera Indian baskets and tagua nut carvings which can be found just before you reboard the ship. There are also dancers, including both natives, and traditional Panamanian, and both were great.
Whale Watcher - thanks for the description of the Panama Canal excursion which is the one I have chosen for my husband and myself for our 3/3/07 HAL Volendam cruise. We are eagerly looking forward to this tour even though it means a long boat ride, then bus trip back to Colon. Can't imagine going the Canal without visiting both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to see this engineering marvel!!