To cruise or not to cruise — that's a question many of our middle-age friends are asking as they consider ways to spend their vacation time and hard-earned money. A lot of people have one of two images — the Party Animal Special with 20-somethings being rowdy and stupid, or the God's Waiting Room cruise with a demographic roughly equivalent to your local Senior Center.
The truth is that most cruises fall somewhere in between, although there are cruise lines and destinations known to appeal to the very young or to the very old. We just came back from our second trip on Holland America Line — this time to the Western Caribbean — and we found both of those cruises to have a smattering of the young, a few more of the old, but a lot of people like us who were smack in the middle.
When friends ask us if they should try a cruise, we say by all means. We view cruising as a kind of sampler vacation — a week or 10 days in which you get to try several destinations and decide which ones you think you would enjoy visiting for an entire vacation period. The disadvantage for us is that we often feel like we would like to spend more time in a port when it's time to leave.
But consider the advantages. With cruising, you pack and unpack your bags once, while the scenery changes before your very eyes. With most cruise lines, the meals are no-muss, no-fuss, always cooked and ready for you to eat when you're hungry -- and also when you're not. Alcoholic drinks usually cost extra, but meals are generally covered with your price of admission. Most onboard activities are covered and only shore excursions cost extra. Dining arrangements usually put you in situations where it's easy to meet new friends.
Our most recent cruise was on the Veendam out of Tampa, Florida, visiting Cozumel, Mexico, Montego Bay, Jamaica and Grand Cayman Island. This seven-day itinerary was about the right combination of shore time -- one day per destination — and cruising. The Veendam produces a program each day outlining the myriad of activities that are available for the passengers. The line-up is impressive — spa classes, yoga classes, culinary classes, shopping classes, art seminars, numerous games and recreational activities, live, high-quality entertainment in the theaters, pubs and restaurants -- and even Catholic Mass.
Of special note to parents bringing children, Holland America Line makes Club Hal available to passengers who want to drop off their grade school-to-pre-teen kids. This was a hit with our seven-year-old who enjoyed the games and crafts but especially liked the idea of meeting new friends on board that were her own age. There is a separate meeting and program area for the teens.
On the Veendam, our "triple" stateroom gave us a couple of twin beds and a couch for our daughter to sleep on. With lots of closet and drawer space, the couple of hundred square feet didn't seem particularly small. We didn't have a veranda — or private outside balcony — but going with just a window saved us about $500 a week.
While a veranda is great to kick back in privacy, read a book and watch the ocean go by, we found an excellent substitute on the Veendam: Deck 6. This is the outdoor promenade deck which is lined with a single row of deck chairs perfect for watching the scenery. It's also where we did our daily walking — four times around to walk a mile.
Days in port can be pre-planned by buying shore excursions such as boat trips, snorkeling trips and various sightseeing tours. We did do one snorkeling adventure — on the Nautilus "submarine" in Grand Cayman, which turned out to be an especially great way to see the abundant fish life in George Town Bay — but generally we preferred to not have any set schedule for our days in port. We like to get off the ship, start walking the town and then take taxis or buses as necessary to see sights we had previously researched.
As you might expect, great beaches and warm-water swimming and snorkeling were plentiful in all three of these destinations. But each destination had its own flavor and attractions and we especially enjoyed such destinations as the Harbour Street Craft Market in Montego Bay — where we loved getting to know the local merchants and vendors — and Cozumel's Chankanaab National Park, where there are beaches galore, giant iguanas run wild and even a pool where visitors can swim with dolphins. On Grand Cayman Island, we found the perfect snorkeling beach at Seven Mile Beach — ideal because the water was clear, the fish plentiful and the people sparse.
Back on the Veendam, the food was generally prepared to a high standard and we usually ate breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria-style Lido restaurant, and dinner in the Rotterdam dining room. There were three formal evenings — meaning everybody gets to dress up for dinner -- with all other meals remaining casual. Interestingly, we overheard some older passengers complaining there was too much cafeteria dining, not enough formal — yet we probably would have preferred even fewer formal dinners. It's hard to please all the people all the time.
With Holland America Line, there is a $10 charge each day that goes toward tipping your cabin attendant, waiters and others who have helped you during your stay on the ship. Frankly we were glad to pay it — the service was as good as any umpteen-star hotel we've visited, always cheerful and responsive. For decades, Holland America Line has been recruiting most of the ship's workers from Indonesia and the Philippines — even to the point of establishing training facilities in those areas — and it seems to be a great marriage. Second and third generation workers are happy to follow in their parents' footsteps and Holland America Line continues to score high with passengers in the category of service.
One thing our friends sometimes ask about is this whole thing about people getting sick while cruising. Indeed, with news stories cropping up from time to time about illness aboard cruise ships — including one very recent episode on a San Diego-based ship — it's only natural that prospective passengers want to know if they'll be safe on the high seas. Television, newspapers and the internet jump on the story and you can almost feel the air being squeezed out of the industry as cruise companies try to unring the bell of negative publicity.
On this most recent cruise, we spent some time with the captain and his executive staff talking about the precautions that Holland America Line employees (and indeed most cruise lines) take to prevent an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness. The captain and his staff explained that, once a virus breaks out, it's quite difficult and time-consuming to purify an entire ship. And so Holland America Line for some time has been waging a pro-active battle — what they call a "Code Yellow" alert — that encourages passengers to wash their hands frequently and avoid physical contact with other passengers. The Veendam greeting, the captain said — only half joking — is to touch elbows, not shake hands.
Indeed, before we even stepped on board the Veendam, we had already been told to wash our hands using one of dozens of Purell dispensers placed all around the ship. Every time we went to eat, dispensers were at the ready. And railings around the ship were being scrubbed and re-scrubbed several times each day to further reduce the chances of an outbreak.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Holland America Line's Veendam currently is cruising out of Tampa, Florida. This particular trip included destinations in the Western Caribbean.
WHAT: Cruising, whether the Caribbean, the Mexican Rivera or anywhere else in the world is getting even more popular with baby-boomers who enjoy the amenities and convenience.
WHEN: Any time of the year, depending on your destination. Cruise lines generally re-position ships to take advantage of increased passenger interest for certain destinations during certain seasons.
WHY: Cruising, in a word, is convenient. Today's ships are so large there are plenty of activities to keep you busy. Cruising also is a way for you to sample several destinations in one short trip without having to pack and unpack bags at each stop.
HOW: For more information on Holland America Line cruises, phone 877-SAIL-HAL or visit www.hollandamerica.com.
Photos by Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway
Captions, from top: Ships dock beside each other in Cozumel; one of the pool decks on the Veendam; Red Stripe beer for sale in the Harbour Street Crafts Market in Montego Bay; Doctor's Cave Beach in Jamaica.