We are cruising this week, experiencing the Eastern Caribbean from the ms Nieuw Amsterdam. It is an unexpected pleasure, for reasons different than I would have guessed. The stereotypical things I’ve heard are true. There is food everywhere, stays in port are brief…a few hours at each stop…and passengers, at least on this ship, for this trip, are mostly older. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
What I didn’t expect was that I would love the gentle rocking motion of the ship (boat, my husband calls it, though that hardly does justice to this vessel). Just enough to be calming and lulling, only occasionally creating a momentary loss of balance, the sensation is similar to being on a train. There’s a sensation of forward thrust, and a back and forth rhythm that is oddly soothing. I thought it might interrupt my sleep, but instead, I find myself sleeping like a baby.
I didn’t expect the views. I’m accustomed to seeing these big ships docked in Ketchikan, during cruise season in Alaska, so I knew the size. But I had never been on board, and didn’t grasp the ability to view from the equivalent of a multi-story building. In port or at sea, you can see a long way. The water looks amazing, and you get a fantastic bird’s eye view of the shading of the waters in the Caribbean ports…so much variation in color that you would think it is unreal, except you know it’s not.
The staff are friendly, helpful, efficient. This crew is mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, and of the ones we’ve talked with, I hear the standard employment contract is ten months. Ten months at sea, then they go home to family for a couple of months. Last night at dinner one of the staff was talking about his wife and children. He misses them, but after he’s been home a couple of weeks, he’s ready to be at sea again. He has done this for 15 years, and this is his way of life. Addicting, he said, and I can see how that could happen. Variety, scenery, and motion color your work environment. And the passengers change regularly. Good or bad, no one stays too long.
We are surprised at the spaciousness and the amenities. There are lounges large and small, an internet cafe (for a fee) a library (free), a well-equipped gym (free) and a spa/salon (definitely not free). A small theater offers recent movies several times a day, there are on-board shops, a medical clinic, a culinary arts showroom, and a large theater for the live performance shows the entertainment crew hosts each evening. A photo studio offers portrait sessions, you can play basketball or ping pong, swim, sit in a sauna or jacuzzi, walk the deck. There is a casino for gamers. There is opportunity to purchase fine art, attend a variety of lectures on history of the ports of call as well as related areas of interest. You can be social or not. We have chosen not, which means we are not seated with others for dining. We chose the “open” dining option, no set time or partners for dinner each evening, and no requirement for formal dress. The most stringent dress expectation is “smart casual,” which means no shorts at dinner. Smart casual is a good fit for us.
One of the curiosities of the cruise industry is the connection between this type of travel and jewelry. When we moved to Ketchikan, I was surprised by the number of jewelry stores there. Most of them are closed during the off-cruise season in Alaska, which is October through April. Jewelry is the most prominent item being sold on board, or at the ship-sponsored shops at each port. Still haven’t understood that connection. But the jewels are beautiful.
The food ranges from a huge buffet line, available most hours of the day, to a large dining room that offers a next step up in sit-down service, food choices, and ambience, to smaller and evermore select dining options, based on prior reservation and additional fees for dining. The fees are a flat per-person charge rather than per item. The service and selection seem appropriately upgraded for the ones we’ve sampled, and the upgrade fees seem fair and proportional. My biggest curiosities with regard to food are 1) how does the staff manage all the logistics of storage and prep for the demand and 2) how can people eat so much?! I am eating little more than my normal amount each day…ok, I’ve had to sample a variety of desserts…but who needs a midnight buffet? There are different themed restaurants: one with classic American fare, an Italian dinner-only option; an Asian-inspired option with the delicate flavors and robust chiles of multiple Asian cuisines. And there is the very upscale grill that offers a fine steakhouse menu. If by chance you need additional refreshment during the day, you can have afternoon tea at 3:00; room service for select items round the clock; and there are various stations for coffees and non-carbonated beverages. There are bars on every level to accommodate passengers’ thirst. Alcohol and sodas are extra; this is not an all-inclusive experience.
Would I do it again? Yes. You get a brief snapshot of what each port has to offer, a sampler, so to speak. This would be an ideal way to travel with family. The variety of activities allows for a range of interests and energy levels. You could enjoy time together as well as apart. And above the base price for the cruise, you can spend more as you add shore excursions or onboard upgrades. But the basic package is generous and relaxing. Best of all, you can be as casual as you choose. There are two formal dining nights out of the seven nights of this cruise, but even on those nights, there are options for passengers who choose to pass on formal attire, which we’ve done. When you book your cruise, you’re given the choice for open seating (no set dining time) and the expectations for formal or casual attire. No surprises on that front.
For our initial cruise experience, we chose to travel with Holland America Line. The other major cruise lines offer different levels of luxury and attract various age ranges. Obviously, the average age on a Disney cruise is likely to be different than on some of the other lines. And you can also experience themed cruises, singles cruises, round the world cruises. I suppose, like many things in life, once you scratch the surface, you find a whole world that you never knew existed.
We’ve had a good time, and a quiet time, mostly enjoying the slower pace and forced disconnection from our norm. We chose not to connect to internet while cruising, and have only had our phones on to check messages. I think about life in an earlier era, wonder about what it would be like to travel by ship in times past. My guess is that the more recent past offered similar levels, perhaps even more, luxury. The distant past? Well, I probably would not have been a fan of travel in sailing ship times. I like running water, toilets that flush, and all the extra amenities that 2012 affords, thank you very much!
So yes, I would recommend cruising. We’ll likely find opportunity to experience it again at some point, when we need a little time out of the race of life, the slow and steady motion of a ship’s engines, and the simple routine of onboard life.