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CLICK! -- whirr! -- ''Thank you! Next!'' Before I knew what was happening, a Holland America Line photographer had thrust a camera in my face to capture a souvenir image of my first steps toward the gangway of the Amsterdam, the cruise ship on which I was to spend the next 10 days traveling through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal. Now she was hustling me along so she could snap the next lucky passenger. Click! -- whirr! -- ''Thank you! Next!''

I had been drawn to this cruise by the promise of a transit through ''the Ditch'' at Panama, one of the world's great engineering marvels, with its ingenious locks and water-filled man-made canyon hacked straight through the Continental Divide. But I was not sure what to expect of shipboard life on a mass-market umbrella-in-your-fruit-drink cruise. My only previous sea voyages had been expeditions in the polar regions, which had included just enough discomfort and uncertainty, even a hint of icy danger, to give them a sense of spontaneity. The straw hats and Hawaiian shirts in the Fort Lauderdale ship terminal seemed to promise a different experience.

Stepping outside, I got my first glimpse of the Amsterdam, a gleaming behemoth of a ship clad in elegant black and white, like a well-scrubbed professional wrestler in a dinner jacket. And as I padded across the gangway, I did an honest-to-goodness double take when I spotted a crewman with a bucket of white paint, hoisted high along the ship's hull by a pierside cherry picker, actually touching up the giant letter S in the vessel's name.

Once inside its velvety, Vegas-resort interior, I found my way to my outside stateroom on the main deck, serenaded by musicians producing the first live-performance elevator music I had ever encountered. My comfortable cabin was decorated in a symphony of beiges featuring a big window, a desk and chair, a couch, twin beds, a TV and an immaculate private bathroom (no tub).


Eager to get out on deck and feel the momentous sense of setting out, of wind and weather and horizons, that surrounds a great ship as it glides out of port, I dashed up seven flights to an aft deck the moment I felt the ship stir. But our departure had been delayed past sundown, and darkness obscured the maritime goings-on I had hoped to see along the pier. So as we left Port Everglades in our wake, I made a last frantic dash down through the ship's interior toward the water line, hoping to stand on an exposed deck with the wind in my face, maybe see if there was a pilot boat.

Instead, I quickly got lost in a garish fun-house maze of brass and mirrors and endless crimson hallways. In the roiling center of the ship's plush-carpeted bowels, the wall-size TV in the Sports Bar blared ESPN's ''Sports Center'' in Spanish, while additional incongruous noise tumbled in from all directions: the nonstop plinking of the casino's slots, the vibrato of an ivory-tickling lounge singer, and the George Kowalski Trio performing ''Feelings.''

When I finally stumbled into the grand La Fontaine Dining Room, a profound kitsch hangover had set in, and I was beginning to wonder what my 857 fellow travelers found appealing about being ensconced in a gargantuan floating hotel for a week and a half. My answer came immediately, as one of my table mates, an amiable 50-ish New Jersey woman, announced proudly that this was her 37th cruise. ''This is what I do now,'' she declared.

''They have movies -- with fresh popcorn! -- in the Wajang Theater,'' she exclaimed, ''and a Java Cafe, and three closets!'' She also seemed pretty fired up about the peppermint candy ice cream.

The food, overall, was hit-or-miss. The inventive cold fruit soups and roasted duck with orange sauce were delicious, for example, while the peppered tuna steak was leathery. The generous wine list included French, American, Australian and Italian bottles.


Service was excellent throughout the ship, provided by a warm Filipino and Indonesian staff, though scarcely anywhere was one safe from intrusive are-we-having-fun-yet loudspeaker chatter. Time and again, poolside naps on the Lido Deck would be interrupted by the relentlessly perky cruise director chirping at passengers to ''come join the Rockin' Rolldies lip-sync show! Then at 4:30, it's eyes down, fingers poised, for snowball bingo with Bingo Pete! Toodle-oo!''

But if I found the Amsterdam's tour-bus homogeneity a bit suffocating, shore excursions offered a welcome escape. On Half Moon Cay, I spent a day stalking bonefish in a mangrove-fringed lagoon with just three other passengers. And in Curaçao, a Netherlands Antilles island with lollipop-colored Dutch facades fronting a bay, 10 of us visited the Curaçao Sea Aquarium, where we were outfitted with scuba equipment and led into an underwater zoo. As we held out bait, hundreds of vibrant-colored fish swarmed around -- angelfish, parrotfish and butterfly fish among them -- giving us a feeling of floating, topsy-turvy, inside a kaleidoscope.

As the Amsterdam sailed from Curaçao toward the Central American isthmus, Allen Wrenn, a civil engineer, gave a riveting lecture on the Panama Canal, outlining its engineering components and describing how its planning and construction dragged on for more than 40 years, from 1870 to 1914, with disease, accidents and mud slides killing legions of men, an estimated 20,000 during the catastrophic early French effort and 5,609 during the ultimately triumphant American era.

The morning of our ship's canal transit, our seventh at sea, I arose before 6 and climbed groggily to Deck 8. From that commanding height, I watched a fascinating spectacle unfold that made worthwhile the entire kitsch assault of the previous week (even the late-night kazoo performance of ''Hello, Dolly!''). As the Amsterdam glided through Limón Bay, morning light was just beginning to seep into the darkened seascape. We had passed the breakwater before dawn, and now, arrayed behind us, lay more than two dozen ships at anchor, dark phantoms lurking in the blue-gray haze, waiting their turn to enter the canal. As a passenger ship, the Amsterdam had been granted a reserved time slot.

All was eerily still. Dead ahead, out of the murky dawn, smudges of gray land began to appear, gradually sharpening until it became clear that the bay was narrowing and two forested shorelines were slanting in closer to us, one on each side. Off the starboard bow, several passengers spotted a crocodile, a rain-forest Cerberus guarding the canal's entrance.

Soon the Amsterdam approached what looked like a great two-lane water highway with a median strip: the Gatún Locks. Each lane of the Gatún ''highway'' consists of three locks, which lift a ship, one step at a time, a total of 85 feet above sea level. Both lanes at Gatún were inbound that morning, with a massive orange container ship already floating surreally more than 50 feet above us in the left lane's second lock.

By this point, our ship had pulled abreast of the median strip, and we had a good view of the small electric locomotives, known as mules, which would guide us through the locks. Waiting in a neat line far below, the mules looked like toy trains.

As we approached the lock, a thousand-foot-long rectangular basin with a pair of swinging gates on each end, a second train and line of mules appeared to our right. The Amsterdam's crew hauled aboard steel cables attached to six mules and the trains swung into action, gliding along their tracks with a great clanging of bells and whirring of electricity, positioning the ship laterally, while the Amsterdam's engines provided most of the forward propulsion.

There wasn't much margin for error: each lock is 110 feet wide, and the Amsterdam is only 5 feet narrower. But sure enough, we squeaked in, and the first pair of steel gates swung closed behind us. Freshwater whorled into the chamber through 70 holes in its floor, and the Amsterdam began to rise gently. Once the water level of our lock equaled that of the lock ahead of us, the gates in front swung open like several-hundred-ton saloon doors, and in we glided to the next chamber.

Each set of locks acts as a giant aquatic staircase, and by the time the Amsterdam sailed out of the third Gatún lock, we had reached the canal's top landing, Gatún Lake, which now spread out before us, broad and serene. Formed by damming the Chagres River and flooding an area the size of Barbados, Gatún Lake is crucial to the canal, for each ship transit uses 52 million gallons of freshwater. This water is supplied by the Chagres, which feeds Gatún Lake, which in turn feeds the locks. Ultimately, the freshwater is flushed out to sea, the entire ingenious system working by gravity.

The Amsterdam sailed southeast, past green islands that had once been hilltops, until we reached the end of the lake around noon and approached the Gaillard Cut. As the historian David McCullough notes in ''The Path Between the Seas,'' the nine-mile cut was ''the special wonder of the canal,'' a project so arduous and deadly that it amounted to a seven-year battle, consuming more than 61 million pounds of dynamite, a ''greater amount of explosive energy than had been expended in all the nation's wars.''

After waiting for a huge car carrier to sail through from the Pacific side, our ship cruised through the narrow, curving cut, the quartermaster positioning the vessel midchannel by using the flagstaff at the bow as a kind of rifle sight, lining it up with giant markers on the hillsides. And before long we approached -- and sailed straight through! -- the Continental Divide, rocky peaks rearing up on either side of the ship.

After exiting the cut, the Amsterdam descended to the Pacific by passing through two more flights of locks. In the wild stretch between, the whirr and clang of the electric mules gave way to the shrieks of monkeys. And then, as we entered the Miraflores Locks, a ferocious thunderstorm descended, jagged bolts of lightning rending the sky.

But by the time the Amsterdam descended to sea level in the final lock and cruised under the Bridge of the Americas, a rainbow had appeared on our port side, behind the distant silver high-rises of Panama City. The channel then widened, and a world opened up before us as the Amsterdam -- 10 hours, 50 miles, and a continent removed from the Atlantic Ocean -- sailed out into the blue Pacific, where an archipelago of ships lay at anchor, all waiting their turn to cross the Americas.

Locks, tugs and lounge singers

Holland America Line offers 15 10-day cruises through the Caribbean and into the Panama Canal in 2002 on the Rotterdam; none on the Amsterdam, which is now sailing around the world.

Most of the Rotterdam's 10-day cruises, round trip from Fort Lauderdale, stop in Puerto Limón, Costa Rica; pass through the Gatún Locks and cruise Gatún Lake, where passengers can take a shore excursion to see the locks in action; then pass back through the locks to resume the cruise to Cartagena, Colombia; Curaçao; Aruba; and Half Moon Cay. For the Rotterdam cruise departing April 6, the next such voyage for which staterooms at all levels are available, per-person rates range from $1,599 for an inside stateroom to $9,015 for a penthouse suite (double occupancy), without air fare or short excursions. Since prices fluctuate, and discounts may be available, it's best to check with your travel agent before booking. For reservations, call (877) 932-4259, or go to

As for air transportation, I had a horrendous experience booking through Holland America. On my return from Costa Rica to Miami, Planet Airways, the charter airline hired by the cruise line, neglected to send the passenger manifest to U.S. Customs, whose computers use the list to determine ahead of time which passengers should be questioned. As a result, each person had to be vetted individually, More than 100 of us missed our connecting flights and spent the night in an airport hotel without even the courtesy of a meal allowance.

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