Cruising needn’t be all about big ships. in fact, certain voyages require you to downsize, for example the Coral Princess, which traverses the Panama Canal. This South American adventure suits first-time and seasoned cruisers alike.

The Paradise that is Aruba's Eagle Beach

Superlatives seem to be the en vogue currency of the cruise industry. Back in 1996 Carnival Destiny grabbed the headlines as the first ship to exceed 100,000-tonnes. Since then, any restraint has gone overboard in the big, bigger, biggest stakes, culminating with the recent arrival of Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas – with a mind-blowing displacement of 225,282-tonnes.

These hyperbole-defying ships are too large to transit the Panama Canal so their deployment is limited to the sun-kissed playgrounds of the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. For passengers who like their ships big, yet yearn to experience a transit of the multi-lock Panama Canal, all is not lost. Coral Princess and her sister-ship Island Princess, are the largest vessels able to navigate this wonder of the modern world.

During navigations of this vital waterway that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, an Admeasure boards each ship to calculate the vessel’s Panama Canal tonnage from which the toll is determined. Back in 1928 Richard Halliburton paid just 36 cents when he swam the entire canal in 10 days; when I took ‘the path between the seas’ on Coral Princess recently the toll was a record-breaking $342,188.

Such is the popularity of Panama Canal cruises Coral Princess spends the winter sailing between Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale. This was my first experience of these slightly smaller vessels of the Princess flotilla, where 1,970 passengers are looked after by a crew of 900; and I was eager to see if they really could deliver on the promise of a more personalised experience.

Coral Princess
The Coral Princess

In between a constant round of partying, incessant eating, and the seductively soothing, almost narcotic rituals of days at sea, there were ports to cram in. We dropped anchor at the once-sleepy fishing town of Cabo  San Lucas on the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula. The curious formations at the Rocks of Los Arcos protruding into the Sea of Cortez looked worthy of exploring but some new-found friends persuaded me to join them at the Giggling Marlin Restaurant for some delicious grilled shrimp and way too many cervezas.

At Acapulco the breathtaking half moon bay spread out in front of Coral Princess’ bow. I negotiated with a convivial taxi driver to take me to nearby La Quebrada. The El Mirador hotel has been part of the social scene in this sensuous city for the last 50 years because it offers a grandstand view of the cliff-divers. These local dare devils plunge over 130 feet into a crevice anticipating the exact moment incoming waves flood it, rather than when the waves ebb, which would result in certain death.

A day later at Puntarenas I took an excursion along rustic roads in slightly less rusty buses in anticipation of a close encounter with the spectacular Costa Rican rainforest. Sadly the promised sloth, agoutis, and salamanders seemed in short supply – maybe it was the presence of vultures that spooked them.

The main reason I chose this cruise was that Princess Cruises is one of the few companies to offer an excursion on the Panama Canal Railway. Originally built in 1855, the world’s first transcontinental railway was restored in 2001 and features five air-conditioned executive carriages as well as a 1938 vintage deluxe observation car. From the terminus in the Canal-Zone at Panama City the train follows the route of the canal offering an unusual perspective of ships in the locks, interspersed with the lush vegetation of the rainforest that surrounds the Gatún Lake. I couldn’t dispute the claim that the most expensive (per mile) railway ever built was also the most memorable.

The return to Coral Princess, anchored off the Panamanian coast at Fuerte Amador, coincided with one of the most dramatic tropical storms I’ve ever witnessed. Sheet lightning flicked the inky diorama on and off, as tumultuous thunder reverberated like cannon fire. With a rainy season lasting nine months, there’s no shortage of water for the continuous operation of the Panama Canal.

Shortly after daybreak the following morning Coral Princess began her eight-hour transit of this engineering miracle, which runs across the mountainous terrain of the Isthmus of Panama joining the world’s two greatest oceans. An unprecedented feat of ingenuity and perseverance, it changed the world by dividing a continent when it opened in 1914. Today it is a highlight of the cruising calendar – and a rite of passage for any cruise addict.

The two chambers of the Miraflores Locks raised us 54 feet, then at the mighty Pedro Miguel Lock we were raised a further 31 feet to the Miraflores Lake. We then navigated the 7.8 mile-long Gaillard Cut – the narrowest stretch of the entire Canal towards the man-made Gatún Lake. The principal water supply for the lake – and hence for the Canal itself – is rainwater falling off the Continental Divide. In late afternoon, Coral Princess descended 85 feet as it negotiated the three vast chambers of the Gatún Locks. A third set of larger locks now under construction will almost double current maximum capacity when they’re completed in 2014.

The sun set as we sped across the Caribbean Sea heading for the Colombian city of Cartagena. The old walled city has changed very little since it was founded by Spanish conquistador Don Pedro de Heredia in the mid 16th century. Its winding streets lined with Spanish Colonial architecture with brightly-painted buildings are delightful.

Aruba is proud of her colonial history and Wilhelminastraat in the old quarter of the quaint capital of Oranjestad reaffirms the strong Dutch links with this Caribbean outpost. Sadly images of a fairytale Amsterdam scene are juxtaposed with designer outlets which in turn nudge knock-off nirvana stalls where you can pick up bling without the sting.

Two last days at sea gave me time to reflect. The experience is intimate; artfully unfancy, yet surprisingly attractive. Coral Princess is a delightful contradiction in the superlative stakes.

Itinery

Day 1 Los Angeles, California Embark Coral Princess at 4pm from the land of the rich and famous

Day 2 At Sea

Day 3 Cabo San Lucas, Mexico Arrive at midday and spend the next seven hours soaking up the sun on the white sandy beaches or enjoy worldclass scuba diving.

Day 4 At Sea

Day 5 Acapulco, Mexico Make the most of the early start (9am) and head to the El Mirador Hotel for a great view of the cliff divers

Days 6-7 At Sea

Day 8 Puntarenas, Costa Rica Nature lovers will want to get out and explore the Costa Rican rainforest bursting with wildlife

Day 9 At Sea

Day 10 Fuerte Amador, Panama (for Panama City) Ten hours should be plenty of time to explore the attractions of the old quarter (known as Casco Antiguo) including Las Bóvedas and the cathedral

Day 11 Panama Canal Prepare yourself for the 48-mile adventure on this ship canal that joins the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean

Day 12 Cartagena, Colombia Don’t miss Cartagena’s Cathedral and Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Day 13 Aruba, Aruba Glorious island in the southern Caribbean Sea – make the most of the watersports from the palm-tree lined Eagle Beach, rated one of the top beaches in the world

Days 14-15 At Sea

Day 16 Ft Lauderdale, Florida End your cruise with a 7am arrival into this US city, known as the ‘Venice of America’ due to its expansive and intricate canal network. Before you fly home take a stroll down Las Olas Boulevard stopping at Stranahan House

What’s On Board

Accommodation There are seven grades of accommodation ranging from inside doubles to ocean view suites and suites with balconies.

On Board Shows in the Princess Theater, Crooners Lounge and wheelhouse Bar. There’s also a Lotus Spa and Beauty Salon; Casino; Golf Simulator; Library, Bridge lectures and internet Café.

Eating Options include the Provence Dining Room, the Bordeaux Dining Room, The Horizon Court, Bayou and Sabatini’s Trattoria.

What to pack: Daywear should be lightweight – preferably cotton – as the humidity is sky high and the sun relentless.

Guide price: A similar 15-day cruise from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale, departing the Uk on 21 September, starts at £1,832 per person, including flights and a five per cent online discount.

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