The landmark Panama Canal, a marvel of engineering that revolutionised maritime trade between North and South America, is why most of us are on this journey. In the space of six hours, Le Boréal will swap the Pacific for the Atlantic, delicately negotiating the 80km series of locks as her passengers and crew experience what is essentially one of the last hurrahs of the canal as it stands.
Le Boréal, launched in 2010, is one of French line Compagnie du Ponant's four ships. More oversized yacht than traditional cruiser, she's built for the type of voyager who loves the sea, but wants a little exploration and adventure with the experience. Just one month before we stepped aboard, this streamlined beauty wasn't floating the Med, but navigating the icy waters of Antarctica.
Our 13-day itinerary includes no fewer than five South and Central American countries, beginning with Ecuador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua before heading to Panama and Colombia and ending with the Caribbean island of Curaçao. But it's the Panama Canal crossing that's the real drawcard, the (centre) point on the itinerary that has everyone talking.
Panama City is one of those cities where the unstoppable ambition of Latin America is palpable, with a skyline reminiscent of Hong Kong, an old town, Casco Antiguo, undergoing a monumental facelift, and a new town where Donald Trump recently opened a hotel and where Waldorf Astoria's first Latin resort is on track to start receiving guests in March.
"Everyone must be back onboard by 1300 hours," announces Le Boréal's captain, Etienne Garcia. "When we receive a 'go' to sail through the canal, we must leave immediately, without delay." Most guests return from their half-day exploration wearing new Panama hats, which they add to their collection of coffee from Costa Rica and cigars from Nicaragua. Le Boréal, meanwhile, is getting ready for her big moment.
"I love the idea of moving from one giant ocean to another," says Garcia. "You can find a mini version of the Panama Canal when sailing through the Corinth Canal and I also love the natural channels in Chilean Patagonia or the Prince Christian Sound in southern Greenland, but this is still something special."
Special indeed: the Panama Canal saves maritime traffic the 12,000km journey around Cape Horn, allowing them to avoid the treacherous Drake Passage and cutting travel time in half. Construction was started by the French in January 1880 and was continued in 1904 by the United States under Roosevelt. The US bought the French equipment for $38 million and paid Panama $9.5 million. The Americans didn't have an easy job: Panama at that time was plagued with malaria and yellow fever, and they were forced to use the dilapidated French infrastructure. Despite all the problems, the canal finally opened in 1914 and almost a century later remains the most important one in the world.
Captain Garcia maintains an open-bridge policy: anyone can pay a visit to the ship's command point, day or night. As the ship waits to enter the canal, the bridge becomes busier than usual, with every senior officer and lieutenant on call and a pilot (the name for a Panama Canal captain) also coming onboard 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," says Garcia. "We'll have to wait and see."
Finally, with the sun low in the sky and evening falling over the canal, Le Boréal receives its nod to go. More Panamanian port personnel come aboard to attach the ropes that guide our transit through the locks. Everyone jostles for a good spot on deck - some bons vivants even order a bottle of Champagne - and cameras are at the ready.
"I always try to make sure we can go through the canal in the late afternoon," says the captain. "There's a special atmosphere in the air. The light is getting softer, the colours change, and it's a big contrast with the hard work and hustle and bustle of the locks."
After being owned first by France and then by the US, the Panama Canal has belonged to Panama itself since 1999. About 14,000 ships travel each year through the three sets of locks, which serve to raise (and lower) ships 26 metres to the level of the man-made Gatun Lake. Small sailing boats pay tolls of about $950 per passage, while the largest ships can pay up to $290,000 per passage. Le Boréal, Captain Garcia explains, must pay about $30,000 for the privilege.
Le Boréal is steadied in the water at the Miraflores locks with ropes attached to "mules", the 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 mules, the excited bustle on the ship's bridge, even the smell of the docks. It takes until midnight for Le Boréal to reach the Atlantic.
The whole experience is only heightened by the knowledge that it's one on the cusp of change. "As of 2015, new locks will be ready and the Panama Canal will lose a little piece of its charm," says Garcia. "Ships keep getting bigger and that's why Panama, which owns the canal and collects its revenue, is investing in building larger locks," he says. "So it's now or never. After 2015, the canal experience will be completely different."
The adrenalised and industrial Panama crossing is in stark contrast to the previously peaceful few days spent floating in the Pacific and touching briefly on some of South America's most intriguing destinations. We initially board Le Boréal in the sweltering harbour of Guayaquil, Ecuador, and immediately turn to the high seas. Some passengers have just completed an intense pre-cruise tour of the country or an exploration of the nearby Galapagos Islands. Others have flown in directly from various points across the globe - Australia, the US, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Argentina - and are still adjusting to the time difference. The 48 hours at sea, going nowhere in particular, with nothing else to do but contemplate the deep blue of the Pacific, provide the perfect entrée to the wonders that are to come.
Everyone enjoys the tranquillity in their own way. Some lounge around the pool; others take their time over lunch, Mediterranean-style, on the terrace of the Grill restaurant on the upper deck. The hallways are quiet and peaceful, with passengers possibly napping on their private balconies or having a massage in Le Boréal's Carita spa. It's only at night, in the Gastronomic restaurant on the Liberté deck, that many fellow guests are actually sighted. Oh, and when the captain decides to create a pop-up swimming pool in the middle of the ocean.
"Who fancies a dip in the Pacific?" announces Garcia as he brings Le Boréal to an unannounced halt. His team create 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 32C and two kilometres of deep blue sea beneath us," he smiles. First the guests and then some of the 136-member crew dive in. I like this ocean baptism. I wonder whether many captains would dare or want to do this for their guests, a thought confirmed by a fellow passenger later that day.
"It is always a special experience with Commandant Garcia," says one French woman, here on her ninth trip with Compagnie du Ponant. "To be honest, we only ever book trips when he is captain. The atmosphere is always great and you get to see things other cruise passengers can only dream of. Our next cruise with Garcia is already booked: the Northwest Passage in August. That will be the trip of a lifetime."
The next day, we pull up in the Costa Rican harbour town of Quepos. The optional excursions are a visit to La Foresta Nature Resort alongside the famous Manuel Antonio National Park, or a quiet exploration of the Savegre River. Some guests explore Quepos itself, a quaint little town with small shops and restaurants and one of the most respected coffee roasters in the country, Café Milagro. Le Boréal lies anchored in the bay and we are shuttled back and forth all day in tender boats. There's no customs or passport control; we just set foot ashore and start exploring.
Nicaragua greets us the following morning with an azure sky and the possibility of either a visit to the active Masaya volcano and the colonial city of Granada.
Granada turns out to be an attractive, compact place where you can safely stroll through broad avenues and shaded squares, and relax in cafés and restaurants hidden inside historic buildings. In a small corner shop I find a wonderful collection of accessories, clothing and homewares made by locals.
A pretty bracelet made from the local jicaro tree is smiling at me. The salesperson is smiling even more. She thanks me a thousand times when I make the purchase.
"I never thought Nicaragua would be so alluring," says a fellow passenger from Austria over lunch in a lovely colonial hotel in Granada. "I want to come back and spend more time here. It seems even more appealing to me than Costa Rica. I never expected that. And hey, the Nicaraguan beer tastes damn good."
Our experiences on the other side of the canal are vastly different. Following the adrenalin rush of Panama, and having exchanged the Pacific for the Atlantic, Le Boréal sets sail for the San Blas Islands, or Guna Yala. Only a handful of luxury cruisers include this Panamanian archipelago of 378 tiny islands in their itineraries.
Le Boréal drops anchor and ferries guests via Zodiac to a deserted beach to make the most of the floating bar, or to snorkel, or sunbathe, or buy souvenirs and fresh coconuts from the local Kuna people.
This is the Caribbean as only a few people know it. You won't find any large hotels or package tourism polluting the vibe; just plenty of uninhabited space to explore. The Kuna people, who live mainly from fishing and small-scale tourism, have a series of special laws to preserve the natural environment, and they make a little money by selling their famous and highly collectable mola textiles to tourists.
Molas, the intricately appliquéd panels featured in the traditional costume of Kuna women, typically depict geometric designs but can also be inspired by more modern imagery such as cartoon characters or advertising labels. A mola can take a couple of weeks or more than six months to make, depending on the complexity of the design.
After the magical San Blas, we plot a course for Colombia. On the itinerary is a full day in Cartagena, a South American city in the middle of a reinvention, and where it is surprisingly safe to walk around unaccompanied. "The only risk you run here is wanting to stay," reads the apron of one local woman. She warmly smiles and offers us a flower.
The following day, it's a visit to the Colombian city of Santa Marta: not quite as cool as Cartagena, but still safe. Locals say that the government is working hard to eliminate crime and make the country more accessible, and it seems to be working.
Our final port is the ABC islands of the Dutch Caribbean. Le Boréal spends the day docked in the colourful harbour of Willemstad while we explore the rest of Curaçao, an island with a tangible sense of joie de vivre. Locals speak Dutch and are friendly and jolly; the streets feel peaceful and well organised. In short, Curaçao is the perfect place to end the cruise.
During farewell drinks, Captain Garcia says that after four intensive months at sea, two of which were spent in Antarctica, he is ready to return to his beloved France for a break. "But I will be back," he says. "To be able to understand life on land, I need the ocean."