By Timothy Scott
With an itinerary that can't be matched anywhere else in the world, the luxury yacht M.V. Discovery lets you explore the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Panama Canal at a leisurely pace.
Some luxury travel tours cover the same path as everyone else and are distinguished by the quality of the guides, the cuisine, and where you bed down at night. Panama Marine Tours' "The Journey Between the Seas," on the ship M.V. Discovery, is a different story. Is does get all the details right on the pampering side, but it follows a unique path, transiting the Panama Canal over a two-day period and exploring the oceans on both sides of the Americas.
The journey sometimes begins on the Caribbean side if there are back-to-back trips booked, but mine starts on the Pacific, which is more common. You board at the Flamenco Marina, at the end of the Amador Causeway, then head south toward the Pearl Islands, a heavenly area for birdwatchers. The trip hits the Darien Gap, another part of the Pearl Islands, and then goes through the Panama Canal, spending a night docked in Lake Gatun, near a Smithsonian research center. After exiting the canal, the Discovery heads into the mouth of the Chagres River from the Caribbean side and spends a night there. The trip ends up in the Caribbean, by the old Camino Real gold transfer city of Portobelo.
The daily schedule is a perfect mix of activities and lazing around, with an open bar welcoming everyone back after an afternoon of snorkeling, kayaking, or nature hiking. Mojitos while watching the sunset over palm trees? A glass of wine while watching porpoises play alongside the ship? A good book, a sea breeze, and sun on your face?
With only 24 passengers maximum, there is more than enough space for everyone to spread out: on one of the back decks, on the front bottom deck with lounge chairs, or in the spacious great room with sofas and dining tables. A wall of glass (cleaned daily) provides panoramic views of everything on all sides, whether it's whales surfacing nearby, tropical islands off to one side, or the walls of the Canal locks. The well-designed cabins-turned down each evening-have full windows, individual climate controls, a steaming shower with great water pressure, and quality toiletries.
The Pearl Islands and the Darien
After pulling out of the marina, the Discovery heads down the Pacific Coast Over several days we explore bird sanctuaries by Zodiac motorboats and kayaks kept on board. Besides a great number of Central American varieties, this area is a popular stop for all the migratory birds that pass through the region. Birdwatchers trying to record their spottings have trouble keeping up. On just one small island we run across Magnificent Frigatebirds, Bare-throated Tiger Herons, ospreys, various ant catchers, and Blue-footed Boobies. Fortunately the experienced guides, supplied by Ancon Expeditions, are experts at finding and identifying birds that passengers are eager to see, then telling as much (or as little) of their story as the group wants to hear.
A highlight of the Pacific side is going by small motorboat upriver into the Darien Gap jungle to spend some time with the Embera Chocoe people, the original natives of the area. The timing has to be right, going in as the tide is swelling and getting out before the water level starts going down. Little girls and boys lead us by the hand to the village of thatched-roof homes on stilts, where villagers are able to live off the land sustainably and make some extra money from tourist visit fees and handicraft sales, rather than from slash-and-burn agriculture. There's a bit of the inevitable "dress down for the tourists" drill going on with the Embera these days, but with tattooed musicians playing traditional percussion instruments and flutes and the young women dancing, it feels like a unique experience.
The handicrafts here are no junky items trotted out for cruise ship masses: most are the famous handmade reed baskets and "vegetable ivory" carvings that end up in museums and serious collections. With no middleman in place, you can buy here knowing that all the money is going right back into the community.
Other stops included isolated Mogo Mogo Island beaches with nobody in sight and San Telmo island, home to a civil war era submarine that was used for oyster harvesting before anyone knew about "the bends." (Not surprisingly, the captain and most of the divers died at a young age.)
We return from these trips to our impromptu happy hour with finger foods, get a briefing on what we saw and what was to come, then gather for an elegant dinner with several main dish choices. Naturally, the menu options are heavy on fresh seafood, with a dazzling paella, dorado fish filets with pineapple salsa, corvina with lemon butter, and mahi-mahi with a cilantro plantain crust. Other options extend to Jamaican jerk chicken, Argentine-style steak with chimichuri sauce, shrimp cakes, and chicken breast with guava barbecue sauce.
Many tours play it safe with nothing but homogenized "international cuisine," but here you get to sample a variety of Panamanian dishes with every meal. The lunchtime soups are especially interesting, from a cream of lentils with plantains to the caldillo de mariscos, a Panamanian seafood soup. Standard breakfast items are joined by empanada-style stuffed items made with corn, manioc, and ground beef. Some items taste better than they sound, like the shredded beef dish known as ropa vieja-"old clothes."
The Catamaran is able to remain calm and stable most of the time, with the only prolonged rough spot to come later when it's time to move from the Atlantic into the Chagres River. Much of the less interesting transiting happens at night and the ship is almost always anchored during meal times. There are bouts of rough seas at times though. "Tonight we are asking whether you would like wine instead of putting glasses on the table," says our waitress at dinner. "We lost some glasses earlier today."