Capone rum-smuggling ship offers canal tours

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Some 270 ships pass each week through the Panama Canal, but one now gives tourists the chance to experience the storied waterway on the "Islamorada," Al Capone's legendary rum-runner.

The wooden ship, famous for smuggling liquor for the US mobster during the prohibition era, turned 100 this year and has been refurbished for guided tours of the canal's locks and shoreline wildlife.

For $165 for a full 50-mile (80 kilometer) trip or $115 for a shorter version, visitors get to go through the canal, but are also transported back to a time when the boat supplied an underground world, shipping black market booze back to the hidden speakeasies of Capone's Chicago.

The 94-ton, 96-meter-long "Islamorada" began sailing in March 1912 under the name the "Santana," and has since earnt the distinction of having passed through the Canal more than any other as the oldest vessel still on duty.

Capone (1899-1947) spared no expense on the original fittings of his rum-runner, giving it five luxury bedrooms, a lavish mahogany dining room, even a library.

The ship, tourist guide Juan Carlos Villareal told AFP, "was used for smuggling rum and whiskey from the Dominican Republic and Cuba to an island in (Florida's) Key West."

After Capone was busted in the early 1930s for tax evasion and shipped off to the notorious Alcatraz prison in San Francisco Bay, the "Islamorada" ("Purple Island") was requisitioned for use in World War II by the US Navy.

Brought back to Panama in the 1960s to serve as a floating hotel for sport fishing, it was later acquired by present owners Canal and Bay Tours, which run the canal cruises three or four times a week.

"I imagine all the things that happened on this ship," said 21-year-old passenger Vanesa Lopez. It is thrilling to be "part of a history that a lot of people know from the movies," she told AFP.

Tour promoters said Hollywood stars Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Errol Flynn and James Garner are among the famous names to have graced the ship's deck.

Not everyone is happy awith the emphasis on the ship's gangster past.

Ecuadoran engineer Manuel Rivera said it troubled him how "much importance is given to Al Capone," adding "he was evil and he is dead now."

But Rodolfo Lam, a Panamanian who guides ships through the canal, dismissed such objections, saying "countries are full of Al Capones."

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