Sailing, Sailing

February 2004

February 22nd Betty Lou spotted a good deal on a ten-day Holland-American cruise. Two days later we were sailing in the Caribbean.

The cruise industry obviously is suffering. Even before 9/11 many observers thought that the large number of mega-liners planned or under construction overestimated the demand. In fact, once we were aboard we learned that, although we may have been the latest of the last-minute reservers, there were many others who had booked only within recent months and weeks. One couple had initially booked an earlier cruise that was cancelled because of insufficient interest. They were given a substantial discount to transfer to this cruise—I imagine they weren't the only ones.

Of course, once you're aboard at a bargain rate, the cruise lines have always been innovative at finding ways to separate you from more of your cash. There are the boutiques, which are surprisingly reasonable, at least for those items which are available elsewhere. However, almost daily, some new type of jewelry item is featured: amber in silver settings, gold chains by the inch, tanzanite, watches...

The casinos are occupied whenever they're open. Not while in port, but otherwise from 9 AM "until closing;" which is later than we've been awake. Although there are a dozen gaming tables, the bulk of the space is dedicated to slot machines, about 125 on the Volendam. Although you can charge your credit card for chips—in increments of $1,000!—cash is also accepted, without the 3% service charge. Spas and art auctions jockey for your attention. One day we passed by an auction lounge in time to hear a Peter Max go for $9,100.

The latest rage is the specialty dining room, which requires a separate $20 per person "cover charge." Since Holland-America is based in Seattle, the Pinnacle Grille features cuisine and wines of the Northwest. The selection isn't as broad as in the dining room, featuring steak, seafood, and duck, most of which items were available some time during the cruise in the dining room. Their wine list was more extensive, but once we knew what was available our wine steward could get us the same selections.

At every port there are dozens of shore excursions, of course also not included in the cruise price. And the day before our return we anchor off Half Moon Cay, a Bahamian island leased exclusively by Holland America. Although there is no charge to swim or sunbathe, and a bountiful barbecue is provided, shore excursions, "beach toys," and beverages are extra, although one can purchase an unlimited beverage package for $19.95. One can also get a "Massage on the Beach," or rent a private cabana, $179, even with full-day butler service, $150 extra.

Photos are also available for purchase after every conceivable occasion: when initially coming aboard, when going ashore at each port, shaking hands with the Captain at the welcoming reception, and during formal nights—posed in front of romantic backdrops and later in the dining room.

One recent change has riled many guests. Many Caribbean ports feature inexpensive liquor, and passengers have become accustomed to providing their own cocktails in their staterooms. The bars and lounges are well attended during the cocktail hour and "sail away" times. But this year (we previously sailed on two other "dam" ships, the Statendam and the Veendam) there was a notice that people buying liquor ashore would have them impounded until debarkation. They do offer bottles of popular liquors for consumption on board, for about twice the price. Fortunately, wines being exempt from this policy, it didn't affect us.

If you can resist unnecessary extras, it really is the bargain you've heard about. For about the price of a hotel room you can get room (admittedly smaller than the hotel, although we were upgraded several classes to a room for four), food, entertainment, and travel to a variety of exotic locales.

Just mentioning the usual three meals doesn't do justice to the selection available. For example, dinner in the Rotterdam dining room includes a choice of seven appetizers, three soups (both courses were highlights this trip), three salads (with a choice of five dressings), six entrees, six desserts, pastries, ice cream, cheese and fruit. The same items are available in the buffet-style Lido restaurant, which offers even more choices at breakfast and lunch than is available in the dining room. There is the annoyance that, although the two seatings begin at 6:00 PM and 8:15 PM, the doors are closed fifteen minutes later. We soon realized it was to permit them to maintain an assembly-line approach—each course was served to nearly everyone at the same time. When we told our waiter the first night that we wanted our salad after the main course it totally threw him. The next night we were assigned us a more experienced waiter who was able to adapt.

Afternoon tea isn't cucumber sandwiches, but substantial meats and cheeses, and there is a themed late night "snack:" German, Alaskan, Californian, dessert extravaganza... All afternoon a sandwich and salad bar and ice cream parlor are open in the Lido, while next to the pool, the Terrace Grille offers hamburgers, hot dogs, tacos and pizza. All day long you can enjoy coffee, espresso, or cappuccino at the Java Café. If all this isn't enough, free 24-hour room service offers a substantial menu, while during dining room hours, everything on that day's menu is available.

Evening entertainment includes pianists, a classical string duo, a dance band, a rock group, and a late-night disco, in various lounge areas. Of course, there is the nightly show, or rather two; one after each dining room seating. This time there was a magician, humorists, musical entertainers, and on February 29th, the Academy Awards on a giant screen. The troupe of Volendam singers and dancers performed several shows on this trip, surprising us with their talent—after several cruises and QE2 crossings we had come to expect less than prime timers.

In port, independent drivers know the routes taken by the organized tours. The cost savings are not great, but four people in a 14-passenger vehicle are more comfortable than the completely-occupied 27-passenger tour vehicle we saw along the way. Shopping is also a popular pastime, although bargains are not as plentiful as once was the case.

Of course, nobody says you have to leave the ship. There are many cruisers who have visited all the ports before and are content to bask in the rays by one of the pools or curl up with a book in one of the many public areas or on a deck chair in the shade on the Promenade deck. Or, as a recent TV cruise ad depicts, just nap.

© Copyright 2004 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved