So I’ve been meaning to write a more extensive journal of our cruise for the archives, but being gone for a week and coming back to multiple work deadlines and the start of rehearsals has kept me from getting it done. So, here goes….
Our cruise was an anniversary present to ourselves. Eighth anniversaries aren’t known for huge celebrations, but we realized that we haven’t truly had a “get away from it all and unplug” vacation since we went to London back in 2009. Plus, this has been such a brutal winter that we both felt we needed to get somewhere sunny and warm for our mental health. Wendy had never been on a cruise, so during our anniversary dinner back in December we looked at options and quickly settled on a 7 night Holland America cruise of the Eastern Caribbean aboard the M.S. Westerdam.
I have done a few cruises in my life, but never on Holland America. We chose it because:
- We’re not big partiers (scratch Carnival).
- We preferred a smaller, quieter experience (scratch Royal Caribbean’s mega ships).
- We preferred a slightly more mature crowd as opposed to a ship full of families and young people (scratch Disney, too).
Holland America has a reputation of providing more of an elegant “old world” cruising experience and while there were certainly younger families and adults on the voyage, we’d read that the average age of passengers was about 54. It turned out to be about right.
Knowing that winter weather can wreak havoc on getting anywhere from the midwest in February, we gave ourselves a one-day cushion and scheduled a flight to Ft. Lauderdale early on Valentine’s Day (Friday). We were scheduled to get in at 2:30 p.m. and booked a hotel near Port Everglades. We wouldn’t get on the ship until after noon the following day.
As it turned out, we were glad we gave ourselves cushion. Weather the day before meant that the crew who was supposed to fly us to Houston got in late the night before. There was a dispute between the crew and the airline how many hours of mandatory rest to which they were entitled so the three hour delay turned into a five hour delay getting out of Des Moines. Fortunately, a Houston based crew who were dead-heading home on the flight volunteered to fly the plane. Nevertheless, we missed our connection and got re-routed on a U.S. Airways flight through Charlotte. Long story short, we to our hotel after 11:00 p.m. after having gotten up at 3:00 a.m. that morning to be in Des Moines for 5:30 a.m. flight. Ugh!
Saturday morning was gorgeous in Florida and we walked over to a shopping area to get a few essentials and a couple of bottles of wine. Holland America allows you to bring one bottle of wine per person on the ship with you (no liquor). On board the ship water, iced tea, coffee and juices are included. Soda, beer, wine and liquor are available for a charge and 15% gratuity/service charge.
We got to Port Everglades about noon and got checked in. This being our first major vacation in four years, we splurged and upgraded to a Neptune Suite which came with a host of perks beyond the larger room and verandah. After hanging out in a large greyhound-esque warehouse lobby for an hour or so with everyone else going on the cruise, we were among the first group allowed to board the ship.
After our long day of travel on Friday, we were relieved to finally get to our suite on the 7th deck of the ship. It was luxuriously large (for a cruise) with a king sized bed, large windows, sitting area, walk in closet, double sink bathroom with jacuzzi tub and shower. A door in the suite led to a large verandah deck with two lounge chairs and a table for four. Our suite package included a bottle of champagne chilled and waiting for us in the room. Our luggage didn’t arrive at our room for an hour or so, so Wendy and I took our bottle of champagne out on the verandah and relaxed while we waited. We then took a little walk around the ship to acquaint ourselves with the public areas of the ten decks.
When you enter or leave port, it’s natural to want to stand along the rail and watch. The nice thing about having the verandah was that we could step out of our room anytime. By the time we had unpacked all of our belongings and organized our room, it was 5:00 p.m. The ship’s loud horn blew, signaling our departure and we stood out on the verandah and watched as we left port to smooth seas and a peaceful sunset.
As part of our upgrade we were invited to a reception in the Crow’s Nest Lounge that first night with the Captain and key members of the ship’s crew. It was nice to meet some of the crew and ask them some questions, and the drinks were free so, hey, why not?
Day 1 – At Sea
12:00 p.m. 24-33.3′ N 074-55.9′ W
Wind NE 7 knots
Partly Cloudy, 80 degrees F
After the craziness of getting to Florida, we were happy to spend the first day of our cruise at sea. We started the morning having breakfast delivered to our stateroom and eating out on our verandah. By the time we got the food and sat down to eat it wasn’t exactly hot, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.
The ocean was amazingly calm. Many people ask us about whether the motion of the ship bothered us. It didn’t. You can certainly feel the gentle rocking and rolling, but both of us found it to be kind of pleasurable. Wendy and I spent much of the day simply hanging out. We hung out at the pool for a while and worked out in the ships excellent fitness facility. Lunch was the ship’s buffet restaurant and the afternoon was spent napping and reading. We headed up on the deck at the back of the ship to watch the sun go down and took some pictures before dinner.
Dress for dinner in the ship’s gorgeous dining room was usually “smart casual.” We discovered that this basically meant no jeans/shorts/swimsuits. I wore a coat and tie most nights and Wendy wore a dress, but we discovered that most people gravitated towards the “casual” end of “smart casual.” The two days at sea were designated “formal nights” and so Wendy and I dressed to the nines. I brought my tux along and Wendy had a gorgeous dress.
Anyone who’s been on a cruise knows that evening meals are usually at a set time and you are assigned to eat with a table of other passengers throughout your voyage. Wendy and I had “open seating” with our cruise which meant we could go whenever we wanted and could choose to eat with others or eat by ourselves. With this being our anniversary cruise we chose to eat by ourselves on all but one night. This meant that we had to wait for a table to open up on a few nights, but they gave us a vibrating pager like other restaurants and we relaxed in the lounge nearby until called. The wait was never very long.
We ate in the Vista dining room each night and really enjoyed the experience. There was a standard menu with 6-8 items available anytime. Then each night there was a unique menu of appetizers, soup/salad, entrée, and dessert. On Holland America all soda, wine, and spirits are additional charge, but we discovered the a few nights in that we could oder a bottle of wine and have it saved under our room number for the following night. This was a cheaper option as we were able to milk one bottle of wine over three nights. The food and service were wonderful!
A lot of people have asked about the beverage policy on Holland America. Water, iced tea, coffee and juices are free. There is a drink package available for $45 per person which affords you up to 15 drinks per person per day. There are a few important caveats to consider, however. If one person in a cabin takes the drink package then both must get one. The 15 drinks does not include premium wines (we were not impressed with the house wines) or premium cocktails (which would not have been a problem as all the cocktails we purchased were standard). Wendy and I are not heavy drinkers so we opted out of getting the drink package. Looking back at our bar tab at the end of the week, we were wise to have done so. It only makes sense if you’re going to drink a lot. One more thing: I did purchase one of the optional “luxury packages” before the cruise. I got a rum/coke package for $45. It was a larger bottle of rum than I expected and was in our room waiting for us along with three cans of coke (which the bar steward swapped for diet coke upon request) when we arrived. This allowed us to have drinks in our room (with the two bottles of wine we brought) and I was able to nurse that bottle pretty much the entire week. I was glad I did it.
We went to the big show in the Vista Lounge that night. It was the Holland America singers and dancers. Wendy and I considered the show “Glee” for adults. It was your basic show choir review of popular show tunes. The vocalists were strong but we thought the show to be fairly mediocre.
Day 2 – Grand Turk, Turk and Caicos Islands
Docked: 8:12 a.m.
12:00 p.m. Winds East 7 knots
Partly Cloudy, 86 degrees F
Undocked : 2:48 p.m.
We opted to stay on the ship in Grand Turk. It sounded like a great place if you’re a diver or snorkeler, but we are neither. To be honest, we were still kind of decompressing from our travel experience getting to Florida, and the idea of being part of the crowd getting off/on the ship didn’t sound like fun to us.
The nice thing about staying on the ship is that we had the whole place pretty much to ourselves. We’d been to the pool the previous day at sea and it was totally packed. There was hardly a deck chair to be found (we did eventually nab a couple) and the pools and hot tubs were busy. While everyone was off the ship checking out Grand Turk, Wendy and had just a handful of people joining us on deck and we had the pool to ourselves.
In retrospect, we kind of wished we had just jumped off the ship after the initial crowd and walked around a little bit. It’s not a huge regret, however.
Dinner in the Vista dining room again though we chose to do an earlier seating and to go to the earlier (8:00 p.m.) show in the Vista Lounge. This was a mistake. We discovered that the generally older crowd on the ship prefers the earlier dinner seating and show. When we got to the Vista Lounge it was packed with our parents generation and we had trouble finding seats. Once again, the entertainment was so-so.
We checked out the guy in the piano bar and enjoyed it, but we like to sing and the piano bar guy was a little more interested in telling jokes and making up his own words to songs. We got tired of that.
We went to the Queens Lounge for the late set by the B.B. King All-Stars, a group of Memphis based musicians/vocalists who sang three sets pretty much each night in the Queens Lounge and did the main stage show in the Vista Lounge on Thursday night. They were phenomenal. Once we’d seen them we couldn’t get enough and made a point of hanging out whenever/wherever they were playing.
Day 3: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Docked 11:52 a.m.
12:00 p.m. Winds ESE 19 knots
Partly Cloudy, 86 degrees
Undocked: 7:55 p.m.
Wendy and I did not have any planned excursions the day we pulled into San Juan. I’ve been there once before and really enjoyed just walking around the old city, so that’s what we decided to do. It was a gorgeous day. It’s easy to just step off the ship and walk through the old city. We found our way up to the old fort of St. Sebastian, but opted not to pay for the tour and took a few pictures in the public areas instead. We grabbed lunch at a sidewalk cafe right by the port and called family and friends back home. St. Juan is a U.S. territory so we had cell service.
We’d read about a chico bar in the old city and sought out the place called Casa Cortes. Once we saw the menu we regretted eating at the sidewalk cafe. Everything on the menu was made with chocolate and looked delicious. They only had one kind of pastry left (made fresh daily) so we each took a pastry and ordered a drink. I had a White Chocolate Russian which was Kahlua and vodka mixed in a martini glass then topped with a layer of white chocolate which floats on the surface. We loved this place and hope to return some day. We made our way to the Red Gate and walked along the sea in the intense afternoon sun. We expected we could get up to the Castillo San Felipe del Morrow from this path, but after about a mile walk we found the way was gated due to construction.
We walked back to the ship along the ocean. We stopped at a CVS pharmacy and grabbed some diet coke and snacks for our room. We then chose to lounge on our verandah for a while and make a few more calls home.
We got ready for dinner and headed up to the Crow’s Nest Lounge for a pre-dinner cocktail. We liked the Crow’s Nest a lot. There was a young woman who played solo acoustic sets with her guitar and ukelele, and she was lovely to listen to. The Crow’s Nest had a expansive set of windows from which we watched the lights of San Juan as we pulled out of port. I stepped out on the deck to take some pictures.
There were a million things to do on the ship. Wendy and I did precious few of them. We were on the cruise to celebrate our anniversary and relax, so we kept to ourselves and didn’t do much of anything.
I did a “Mixology” class one afternoon while Wendy napped. It was fun, but overbooked. That mean that I only got to mix one of the three drinks they taught. For the price of the class you basically got three discounted cocktails to drink. I wouldn’t do it again.
We also aren’t big shoppers or gamblers so avoided the shops and casino. We had our pictures taken by the photographer one night for their premium “Black Label” portraits. They were gorgeous, but with a price tag of $600 for five 8×10 photos we quickly said “no thanks.”
There was a television and DVD player in our room. The satellite television was mostly ship board information. There were some news channels, a couple of movie channels and two channels of ESPN which was European based and showed mostly soccer and cricket. We were bummed that there was no coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi available on the cruise, though the news channels had periodic updates. There was a big library of DVDs available, but we didn’t watch any movies. We generally chose to watch the ocean instead.
Day 4: St. Maarten
Docked 8:23 a.m.
12:00 p.m. Winds NE 16 knots
Partly Cloudy, 82 degrees
Undocked: 2:49 p.m.
The small island of St. Maarten/St. Martin is divided. Half of the island is Dutch St. Maarten and half of the island is French St. Martin. The cruise port is on the Dutch side. Wendy and I took an excursion which had received really favorable reviews on-line. We got on a small bus and went to the homes/studios of five artists who live and work there on the island.
The first stop on the tour was a mansion on a hill that the artist did not own, but was allowed to use. The artwork was interesting, but it was the view from the porch of the house that was truly breathtaking.
The nice thing about the tour was that it took us around the entire island and allowed us to see what life and homes were like away from the colorful tourist areas. It was fascinating to see where the artists lived. There was great diversity in the types of art we saw and it was sort of interesting to meet them and have the opportunity to talk to them.
The excursion did take some time. We had a couple of people on our tour who found it difficult to get around and there was some walking and climbing awkward steps involved, so we spent a fair amount of time waiting. By the time we got back to St. Maarten we were ready to find some food and enjoy what little time remained on the island. Our tour guide offered to let us leave the tour at the home of the last artist which was on the far end of the boardwalk in St. Maarten. From there we got to walk down along the beach and back to the ship.
We had lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe in St. Maarten and watched a little of the Olympic hockey match that was on. Many people, especially Canadians, had sought out the Hard Rock to watch hockey. We did a little souvenir shopping before walking back to the ship.
Our afternoons on the ship generally included a nap. I slept really well on the cruise. In fact, at least a couple of mornings Wendy was up before me and left me sleeping in bed. This is a very rare occurrence. The motion of the sea was something I truly enjoyed. I felt like God was rocking me to sleep.
Our evenings often started with a pre-dinner cocktail in the Crow’s Nest or in the lounge next to the Vista dining room. Our first night on the ship we met a young man named Roldan from the Philippines who was a barman on the ship. Roldan became our favorite person on the ship’s impressive staff. He remembered our names (and our favorite drinks) and we enjoyed getting to know him. He worked days in the Crow’s Next and could usually be found in the Vista Lounge or Queen’s Lounge in the evenings. Whenever he saw us his face would light up, he would greet us by name, usher us to a seat and always took good care of us.
After our pre-dinner cocktail we would head to the dining room. Because we did open seating the time was never consistent, but it was generally after 8:00 when we arrived. With open seating you get put wherever there is an open table in the dining room so we had a number of different stewards and sat in several different locations in the dining room. The food and service were always good. After dinner we almost always returned to our verandah to have a after dinner glass of wine and look at the moonlight on the waves.
After finding out how good the B.B. King All Stars were, we really didn’t care ‘t about any of the other entertainment on the ship. We found ourselves at the Queen’s Lounge each night to catch a couple of their sets. I was always surprised at the small crowd, but we tried to make it an enthusiastic one.
Day 5: At Sea
12:00 p.m. 21-09.4′ N 069-28.6′ W
Wind NE 9 knots
Partly Cloudy, 84 degrees
After our breakfast that first morning on the verandah, the rest of our cruise we ate each morning in the Pinnacle restaurant. This was one of the perks that came with our upgrade. Instead of eating in the Lido Restaurant Buffet, we were given the white glove treatment. The gentlemen in white coats sat us at the table, put a napkin on our lap, and delivered a delicious breakfast at a beautifully appointed table – usually near a big window where we could watch the ocean outside.
We worked out in the fitness area in the late morning. Because Holland America does such a nice job of keeping portions small, Wendy and I didn’t feel like we overate all week. We did eat more than we would normally eat at home, but we avoided the buffet (other than lunch) and kept our portions reasonable. Even the little delicacies which were available to us in the Neptune Lounge all day were typically bite sized. It was nice.
I think I mentioned that the ship had a library located in the Crow’s Nest Lounge. Wendy had picked up a novel our first day and I had a novel I’d brought along. So, after working out in the morning our day at sea was spent quietly reading on our verandah. I should explain that for the first half our our journey our stateroom faced north, so we were in shade all day. This was pleasant, but our pasty white midwestern bodies were craving some Caribbean sun. Once we left St. Maarten the ship was headed west and our stateroom verandah was in the intense, tropical sun. So, we sunned ourselves and read much of the day away.
Because it was a day at sea, it was also a formal night. We dressed to the nines once more and headed out to dinner. The B.B. King All Stars were playing the main stage show in the Vista Lounge, so we got there early to get a front row seat and enjoyed an amazing concert. The stage and lights in the Vista Lounge were really amazing. Being theatre people, Wendy and I marveled at the set up they had and what they were able to do. After the show we stood at the stage and looked up at the rigging. One of the grips saw us and came over to talk to us. He was from Peru and gave us a little information about the equipment and staff they had on the ship. It was really impressive.
Day 5: Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
Anchored 7:37 a.m.
12:00 p.m. Winds SE 19 knots
Partly Cloudy, 82 degrees
Anchor Aweigh: 3:00 p.m.
Every major cruise line owns their own island in the Bahamas. For Holland America this is Half Moon Cay which is a little slide of paradise. There is no pier, so the ship anchors in the bay and a group of tenders (small barge like boats that seat a few hundred people) shuttle people back and forth to the island.
On the island there is a little welcoming center with shops and a bar. The beach is easily accessible and there is a road with little trucks which ferry people up and down the island. Wendy and I had booked a horseback riding excursion, so after a quick walk down the beach and back we met up at the excursion’s gathering point.
The horseback riding excursion felt like it had been oversold. As a result, we spent a lot of time waiting. Horses were brought from the stable one-by-one and a rider saddled. Those who had been saddled stood or were allowed to walk their horses in a big circle. It took a long time to get everyone on a horse (Wendy was one of the first, I was one of the last). The downtrodden horses were then led on a well rehearsed walk on some trails near the beach. No one was allowed to get out of line, trot, gallop or run the horse. It was a lot like those little kiddie pony rides at the fair. The young men who ran the excursion, meanwhile, rode up and down the line of horses yelling commands at you. One yelled at me to move my hands up on the reins, and a few minutes later another yelled at me to move them back down on the reins. It was really frustrating.
Once back at the stable everyone got off and the horses re-saddled. More waiting. We got back on the horses in smaller groups (more waiting) and this time they took the horses into the ocean. Once in the water the horses ran about a hundred yards or so in the ocean. This was, admittedly, a pretty cool experience. You had to hold on for dear life and it was wild to feel the ocean rushing by you as the horse ran while at the same time the waves were crashing into you from the side. A handful of people fell off.
By the time we got back to the beach it was 1:00. What we didn’t realize is that the food and drinks on the island are all brought from the ship by the ship’s staff. So they have to haul it on, set it up, feed everybody, then break it down and take it back to the ship. All of the documentation said that lunch would be served until 1:30, but by the time we got to the eating area things were already being broken down. We got a cold hamburger but there were no condiments to be found. The water had already been taken, so we were lucky to find that the bar tender would grab a beer which was already packed up and ready to be shuttled back to the ship. We’d hoped to have a drink on the beach before returning to the ship, but by the time we finished our cold hamburger and walked to the beach the bar had already been emptied and cleaned. Frustrated and disappointed, we opted to head back to the ship.
Our Half Moon Cay experience was really one of the few disappointing experiences of our week. If we were to do it again, we would have not booked the excursion and simply sat on the beach and enjoyed the ocean.
When we got back to the ship we got a bucket of beer from the Lido bar and returned to our stateroom. The tenders were pulling up to the ship right below our verandah, so we sat and enjoyed a cold bevy while watching the tenders shuttling people back to the ship.
We cleaned up and headed down to dinner. One thing I also want to mention is that Wendy and I were blown away by the artwork on the ship. There were some amazing original pieces of art scattered throughout. There was also a lot of art related to the history of Dutch ships and trade. Knowing a thing or two about our Dutch history, Wendy and I probably appreciated it more than most, but I really enjoyed stopping and checking out the artwork as we walked to different places on the ship.
We had heard all week about happy hour in the Crow’s Nest Lounge but had never made it up there. From 4-5 p.m. you can buy one drink and get another drink for $1. We wanted to see our friend Roldan one last time and say good-bye. The place was packed like we’d never seen it, which sort of made us happy we’d avoided it. Nevertheless, we had a drink and got to say farewell to Roldan.
We returned to our stateroom, dressed up and enjoyed our final evening meal in the Vista Dining Room. After dinner we headed to the Queen’s Lounge to see the B.B. King All-Stars one last time and then headed back to our stateroom to pack since our luggage had to be outside our stateroom before midnight.
I have told many people that I have not been so grieved to go home since I cried on the way home from Camp Idlewood when I was 12. Wendy and I had a fabulous time and loved our experience on Holland America. Wendy and I were already talking about booking our next cruise before we got home!