PANAMA CANAL -- A Winnipeg vacationer can be forgiven for his mixed feelings upon encountering this marvel of human engineering.
On the one hand, the 77-kilometre seaway that separates the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in the Caribbean cannot help but engender awe.
The day-long passage, squeaking through the canal's series of locks aboard a luxury cruise ship while sipping a series of tall cool ones, was easily the highlight of our recent 15-day winter holiday.
On the other hand, any self-respecting Winnipegger has to approach the canal like Frodo Baggins entering a tropical Mordor.
Received wisdom from civic history lessons is that the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 is what sent our fair city into a long, slow economic tailspin.
All of a sudden it was cheaper to ship goods by sea rather than over land, and Winnipeg, in the centre of North America, has taken almost 100 years to regain its footing.
To be perfectly honest, these weighty thoughts did not intrude too often upon our sun-fried brains.
We were on vacation, after all. And as anyone who has ever been on a Caribbean cruise knows, we were thus too busy with sightsighting, socializing and dining.
Our Panama Canal holiday, in which my wife and I served as hosts of the second annual Free Press Book Lovers' Cruise, was organized aboard the Princess Cruise Line's 2,000-passenger Coral Princess by the Winnipeg office of Carlson Wagonlit Travel.
Our hardy little band of merry-makers departed from Los Angeles, Calif., and returned from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., well-rested, well-fed and, in some cases, well-read.
The advantage of cruise vacations over resort holidays is you visit a variety of destinations without having to unpack and re-pack. Prior to the canal transit, we spent a day each in three ports in Mexico -- Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco and Hualtulco, one in Costa Rica and one in Panama City itself.
On the post-Canal leg, we visited the city of Cartagena in Colombia and the Dutch island of Aruba.
On sea days, a group of us met for lively book-club sessions in which we traded opinions about the three novels we had selected for optional reading, two of them "themed" to our trip.
We dined each evening with members of the group to share our day's experiences, whether we left the ship to tour a port or stayed aboard to lounge by one of the pools.
The food and the meal-time service always are highlights of any cruise. The hard part for most people is to show a little restraint at the table!
In between meals and sightseeing, most of us took advantage of the ship's numerous amenities and diversions -- exercise and spa facilities, art auctions, music and dance shows, souvenir shopping, you name it -- and struck up conversations with our fellow cruisers, a quarter of whom were Canadians.
The book lover in me noticed one development from our inaugural cruise the year previous. In the winter of 2009, also aboard a 2,000-passenger ship, we met just one person, a lawyer from Los Angeles, who had brought with her a first-generation Amazon Kindle e-reader.
This time, there seemed to be Kindle carriers everywhere, ironic given the Coral Princess boasts a huge library of books for the free borrowing.
Of our Caribbean ports of call, everyone had their own favourites, usually determined by which shore excursions they had signed up for.
I was taken by Aruba, which offers a mix of European orderliness and Caribbean frivolity (not to mention reasonably priced retirement properties!).
My wife was partial to Costa Rica. We docked at the Pacific coastal town of Puntarenas and took a bus excursion inland to the mountains, where we toured a coffee plantation and an orchid farm.
It was a fascinating and exotic day. Perhaps it's no coincidence that at the end of next January we will be returning to Costa Rica for our third annual cruise with more time to take in the country's multiple attractions.
A partial list includes volcanoes, cloud forests, sky walks, magnificent waterfalls and, of course, beautiful beaches. You can shoot rapids, go canyoning, caving and kayaking, and marvel at the variety of birds, butterflies, crocodiles, monkeys and sea turtles.
Carlson Wagon has put together an attractively priced package that includes three separate weeks.
On the first we will be aboard a small ship, the 150-passsenger Windstar yacht, to make several ports of call in Costa Rica and one in Nicaragua.
The second week is a Costa Rican land tour to the country's key sites, with beds in a succession of four hotels.
There is an option of a third week at a new five-star resort, the Rui Gunacaste, located on Matapalo Beach on the Pacific coast.
Contact Carlson Wagonlit to book one week, two weeks or all three. Speaking of books, one wonders how many iPads we'll see.