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Ask the Editor: Destinations and Itineraries

How do cruise lines choose itineraries?

Are the east ends of islands poorer than the west?

When's the best time for whale watching in Alaska?

Is the ocean on the east coast of the Panama Canal really a different height than the ocean on the west coast?

What's a cruise to nowhere?

How do cruise lines determine their itineraries for the next season? Do they follow passenger suggestions, look at travel trends or what?

The criteria differ from line to line, but, generally speaking, the same factors enter into the decision-making process for all of them, though the weight and priority of each may differ from one company to the next.

A spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), tells us that itinerary strategies consider multiple factors, such as:

Port of embarkation: Does the port have the infrastructure in place to support the volume of inbound and outbound passengers? Is it accessible by car or plane to a large segment of the population?

Are the destinations on the itinerary "friendly" enough for first-time guests? Are the ports easy to get around? Are there a good selection and variety of shore excursions?

Past-guest comments and destination desires.

Logistics: Does the speed of the ship allow for the travel time needed between ports of call?

After taking about a bazillion island tours I've begun to notice a pattern. To me it seems that generally the east end of the islands are noticeably poorer and more run down than the opposite end. Am I right, or is it just my imagination?

No, it's not your imagination. Though it isn't true 100 percent of the time, property values are often higher on the western shores of Caribbean islands. The reason is that most hurricanes approach these islands from the east, and slam into the eastern sides first, inundating that side of the island with the heaviest winds and most punishing waves and storm surge. The western sides of the islands, though not totally spared, usually fare better.

When is the best time for whale watching in Alaska?

Humpback whales can be sighted dependably throughout the Alaska cruising season (June through October). June and July are great months for whale watchers to cruise as those are the months you are most likely to sight orcas as well.

Though you didn't ask about other regions, whale watching is also popular on Mexican Riviera, Sea of Cortez and Hawaii cruises as well. In Hawaii, the best months for viewing humpbacks are December through April when they return to the warm waters around Maui to mate and bear their calves.

For Mexican Riviera cruises, the months of December through April, with the exception of February, are best for spotting California gray whales as they move south to their calving grounds in the Sea of Cortez (in February), then back up along the western coast of North America on their return trip to Alaska.

The locks of the Panama Canal allow ships to accommodate the difference of water level from one end of the canal to the other. How can the ocean on the east coast be of different height than the ocean on the west coast? Isn't the ocean level the same everywhere?

You are correct. Sea level is sea level. (Okay, purists, we know that there are slight variations due to tides, currents, winds and bottom contours, but for the purpose of answering this question those differences are immaterial.)

Theoretically, it is possible to build a sea level canal across the Panamanian isthmus that would obviate the need for locks. In fact, that was the original plan of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who engineered the Suez Canal in the mid-19th century. The Suez Canal is a sea level canal, and therefore requires no locks.

By definition a sea level canal is a man-made ditch dug to sea level plus the maximum draft of the vessels that will navigate it. Since the Suez Canal can accommodate ships of about 50-foot draft, it was necessary to dig the "ditch" to a depth of 50 feet below sea level from one end of the canal to the other.

De Lesseps' plan, which worked in Egypt, was doomed to failure in Panama. Though the toll on laborers working on the Suez project was heavy -- tens of thousands of fatalities -- the terrain and weather were more conducive to ultimate success than the same factors in Panama, where he had to contend with crossing mountains, hurricanes, tropical diseases, landslides and torrential rains. All that is left of the original effort is the Culebra Cut, the only ditch-like portion of the canal. The cut represents only 15 percent of the canal's total length. In the 22 years de Lesseps struggled with the project, he was only able to dig the cut from 210 feet above sea level to 193 feet above sea level, a total of 17 feet. In order to have a sea level canal he would have had to dig down a total of 260 feet (210 feet to reach sea level plus an additional 50 feet or so to accommodate transiting ships' drafts). In other words he had only accomplished 6.5 percent of the digging required, and that was only confined to 15 percent of the canal's length.

The American effort was more ingenious. They deepened and widened the Culebra Cut, but only to the extent that its surface was 85 feet above sea level, or 85 feet higher than would be required for a sea level canal, then built locks at either end of the canal to raise ships a total of 85 feet to that level. Instead of lengthening the cut, they used dams to create lakes at the proper elevations that ships could transit at various points along the span of the isthmus. Thus, ships go from sea level at one end of the canal up by locks to 85 feet above sea level to cross the Culebra Cut and Gatun Lake, then down 85 feet in the locks at the other end of the canal to exit, once again, at sea level.

What's a cruise to nowhere?

First, let's talk about what it isn't. A cruise to nowhere is not a cruise that never leaves the dock, though nitpickers will complain that even if you only move a few inches you've cruised somewhere. Rather, it's a sailing (usually overnight) that calls at no ports, then returns to the dock. In most cases the ship anchors or idles far enough out to sea to open the casino and shops.

Why cruise to nowhere? For cruise lines, it's a way to introduce a ship to the widest number of people in the shortest amount of time. When they launch new vessels, many lines conduct a series of one- or two-night cruises to nowhere for travel agents and journalists before the inaugural sailing. The promotional value is obvious, and three one-nighters clearly expose the new ship to triple the target audience that one three-night cruise would reach. For travel agents it offers a quantum leap in familiarity with the product compared with the alternative of a two-hour walk-through while the ship is in port, but still gets the agents back to their desks in the shortest possible time.

But regular 'ol cruise travelers occasionally get a chance to try cruises to nowhere as well. Cruise lines will schedule these short sailings when there is a brief gap between major itinerary segments. If you've never been on a cruise before, consider it a sampler, giving you a tiny taste of what to expect on a cruise without committing to several days at sea. If you live near the departure point it can add up to a very romantic -- and affordable -- night away from home, since cruises to nowhere are often offered at bargain basement prices. And, on that note, when offered by luxury lines, a short cruise is a great chance to experience upscale cruising without breaking the piggy bank.

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